Friday, September 18, 2015

"Between Riverside and Crazy"

Between Riverside and Crazy
Stephen Adly Guirgis

Carl Lumbly, Lakin Valdez & Samuel Ray Gates
The fact the entire suburban flat rolls back and forth a few feet between the ten scenes gives us a good clue that there is plenty of shifting about to occur in the characters and stories on this American Conservatory Theatre stage.  Those who populate the plays of Stephen Adly Guirgis tend to bring secrets and surprises that shake and usually destroy our initial impressions, and we will soon discover that the folks in his 2015 Pulitzer Prize-winning Between Riverside and Crazy are to a person not quite who we may think they are upon our first meeting them.  Speaking in rich, graphic language brimming full of expletives and elegance and knit together in street-smart poetry, they each eventually reveal past lives, current motivations, and dreams of futures that are not always immediately forthcoming.  Mr. Guirgis’ latest offering in his long line of impressive works (Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train, Our Lady of 121st Street, The Mother F**ker with the Hat to name a few) touches on a wide range of issues filling every current newspaper, talk show, and online discussion group.  Racial tensions, the plight of the young African American male, rising distrust of police and City Hall, the life and plight of immigrants in America, marital impropriety, adult children who return home to live, issues of aging including displacement from rent-controlled housing, and more all work their way into this mixture of dark comedy and social, family drama.

Limping painfully due to a hip full of old bullet wounds, ex-cop Walter Washington has spent many years pursuing with no luck a multi-million-dollar suit against the city’s police department in retaliation for the white officer who shot him while Walter was off-duty at a local bar.  Living with him are his adult, ex-con son Junior as well as Junior’s skimpily clad and latest girlfriend Lulu and his Nuyorican (New York/Puerto Rican) friend Oswaldo.  None of the three pay room or board, and all repeatedly duck out of their promises to walk the dog -- much to Walter’s profaned exasperation.  Tensions clearly exist between Junior and his Pops while the other two appear genuinely attached to the crusty old man they now call ‘Dad.’  Walter’s former partner, now best friend, NYPD Detective Audrey O’Connor, arrives to visit, to announce her engagement to Lieutenant Dave Caro (and show off her $30K wedding ring he bought with poker winnings), and to persuade Walter to take a final offer from the City to settle his suit.  Of course, the offer is only a fraction of what Walter feels he deserves; and the mounting threats by the two cops of what might happen if he does not sign set the scene for old skeletons to start rattling in their cages and then to break out in full fury.

Carl Lumbly’s Walter is cantankerous, crusty, and crude while also equally being vulnerable, funny, and endearing.  In his stiff shoulders and set jaw we see an unbending stubbornness; and by his glare that pierces its target like an arrow, we see into his drive for revenge.  But this Walter also has heart, generosity, and an ability to forgive; and Mr. Lumbly seamlessly swings the moods and manners of Walter to lay before us a complex man whose journey finally to his dream takes him from unexpected sexual bliss to the brink of death and on to a paradise far away from his New York flat.

Gabriel Marin as Lieutenant Dave Caro matches and may even exceed Walter in showing a wide range of emotional states and stances.  Wide smiles and gushy respect with eyes that dote on the elder cop give way to voice with a growing edge, smirks and upturned brow, and slurred words from too much drinking that begin to sting with insults directed toward both his stunned fiancé (the always excellent-in-any-role Stacy Ross) and the unbending, increasingly angry Walter.  The good cop totally gives way to the bad cop as Mr. Marin’s Caro increases his threats to get Walter to sign the agreement; and the viciousness shown and the depth of dislike that emerges makes this portrayal mesmerizing as well as troubling to behold.

Carl Lumbly & Catherine Castellanos
All other cast members (Elia Monte-Brown as Lulu, Samuel Ray Gates as Junior, Lakin Valdez as Oswaldo) bring depth and nuance to their parts as well, resulting in an ensemble that rides together in tight, well-paced fashion the roller coaster of the story’s emotional ups and downs (thanks to outstanding direction by Irene Lewis).  Catherine Castellanos particularly stands out as the Church Lady who pays a visit to brighten up Walter’s day and to entice him to ingest a holy wafer.  She has some secret skills from a past life that are not at all obvious from her Brazilian, broken-English chatter.  How she lures Walter to communion, ecstasy, and almost the eternal hereafter becomes the evening’s showstopper.

Before the final curtain, we realize that Mr. Guirgis has once again created a gem that this cast and this production have turned into rich treasure to behold.  We have laughed, gasped, been repulsed, maybe shocked, and probably come close to a tear or two as we have watched one man doggedly pursue a dream that at times becomes his, and all others,’ nightmare.

Rating: 5 E’s

Between Riverside and Crazy continues on the Geary Stage of the American Conservatory Theatre through September 27, 2015.  Tickets are available at or by calling the box office at 415.749.2228.

Photos by Kevin Berne

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