The Stars Align as ‘Riverside’ Arrives on Broadway

What makes ‘Between Riverside and Crazy’ resonate as more than a deliciously dark comedy is the compassion and wisdom that Stephen Adly Guirgis brings to its flawed characters, and to others who invite less sympathy.

Joan Marcus
Stephen McKinley Henderson, Victor Almanzar, and Common in ‘Between Riverside and Crazy.’ Joan Marcus

There are times when a great actor and a fabulous role are united, and it’s as if the stars aligned and the angels gave consent. Such is the case with Stephen McKinley Henderson and Walter “Pops” Washington,” the protagonist of Stephen Adly Guirgis’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, “Between Riverside and Crazy.” Just don’t tell Pops that heaven had anything to do with it.

“There is no God,” Pops declares, when the subject comes up. “And if somehow there is, well … give me five minutes and a fair fight, and I’ll show God exactly what I think of him.”

Such pungent lines — “Riverside” is full of them — provide a showcase both for Mr. Henderson’s low-key but razor-sharp delivery and for Mr. Guirgis’s ability to infuse bitingly funny, sometimes profane dialogue with a sense of emotional and spiritual yearning that ultimately rejects cynicism or nihilism. The latter has, over the past two decades, produced such acclaimed works as “Our Lady of 121st Street,” “The Last Days of Judas Iscariot,” and “The Motherf—er with the Hat.”

All that and the Pulitzer notwithstanding, it has taken nearly eight years for “Riverside” to get to Broadway. Happily, the production that just arrived benefits from the presence of Mr. Henderson and most of the superb actors who joined him in the original, off-Broadway staging, as well as the eagle-eyed, big-hearted guidance of Austin Pendleton, who returns as their director.

The play follows Pops, a retired policeman whose wife has recently died, as he negotiates a string of interwoven crises. While still serving, Pops, who is Black, was shot by a young white officer — Pops was off-duty at the time — and consequently filed a suit against the NYPD. Eight years have passed, but he’s still refusing to take a settlement offered by the department despite the prospect of losing the spacious, rent-controlled apartment where his son, Junior, an ex-convict, and Junior’s girlfriend, Lulu, also live, rent-free.

Pops’s cash flow isn’t the only factor making him vulnerable to the whims of his landlord, who has already issued several subpoenas. His paternal generosity extends to supporting another young man who has done time, Oswaldo, who seems to be struggling more in re-adjusting to life outside. Junior and Lulu hardly live like saints, for that matter; neither does Pops, who by the second scene is up on the roof with his son’s sweetheart, smoking weed.      

What makes “Riverside” resonate as more than a deliciously dark comedy is the compassion and wisdom that Mr. Guirgis brings to these flawed characters, and to others who invite less sympathy. Michael Rispoli reprises his alternately jocular and scathing performance as Dave Caro, a police lieutenant who is engaged to Pops’s former squad partner, and thus is tasked by his superiors with convincing Pops to drop his lawsuit.

“I’m on your side, Walter,” Dave insists during a dinner visit that starts off chummy but turns nasty, and racially charged. After Pops refuses to budge, Dave exclaims, “The simple fact is that not everything in this world, Walter, is about being Black,” adding a qualifier that incorporates a four-letter-word the playwright uses liberally, and with expert wit. 

By the end, we learn that the lieutenant told an egregious lie in trying to make his case — but that Pops did as well. Mr. Guirgis is far less interested in pointing fingers at particular groups or people than in examining the challenges that can make all of us hypocrites, or at least make it very difficult to live up to our own ideals. 

The characters making this case include Church Lady, a young woman who turns up at Pops’s place ostensibly to provide religious counsel but ends up offering very different insights and services, hilariously played by original cast member Liza Colón-Zayas. The dizzier and more scantily clad Lulu is portrayed with similar zest by Rosal Colón, who also introduced the role.

A new cast member, the hip-hop artist and screen actor Common, makes a solid Broadway debut as Junior, whose fraught relationship with his dad informs some of the play’s funniest and most poignant moments. “If you had any integrity,” Pops tells his son at one point, “you’d know that an honorable man can’t be bought off.”

As Mr. Guirgis reminds us, though, life can defy such absolutism. “What a world it would be if ‘what was right’ was enough,” Pops muses later. Perhaps an honest effort is all that the higher powers — if they exist — can expect of us.   

The New York Sun

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