Through Sun 4/23
Pulitzer Prize winner and Steinberg Distinguished Playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis, whose script Between Riverside and Crazy is now on stage at the Cleveland Play House, is noted for writing plays that feature racial discord and the definition of family, while examining “self-interest, self-delusion, self-recriminating, greed and amorality.”
He’s also a master at assigning his scripts provocative titles including The Motherf**ker with the Hat, “Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train, The Last Days of Judas Iscariot and Lady of 121st Street.” You might wonder, after seeing Riverside, why he didn’t entitle the work The Effect of Angst and the Church Lady.
Blurring lines between the sacred and profane has always been a specialty of the playwright. In his writings, as is evident in Riverside, Guirgis, who is considered one of America’s foremost new contemporary playwrights, does not shrink from four-letter words, explicit sex scenes and “in your face” reality.
The story centers on Pops, a cantankerous ex-cop. He retired when he was shot in the backside during an arrest. He did not go gently into the good night. Instead, he sued the police department because of racial harassment, fails to agree to the “fair” settlement he was offered, and refuses to act on the eviction notices being sent to him by the owner of the rent-controlled Upper West Side Hudson River-view prime piece of New York real estate he occupies.
This is a man of major contradictions. At one moment he can be sweet, the next obstinate. He takes in stray people, often peppering them with money and affection, while being rejecting and stand-offish toward his son and now deceased wife. He is pig-headed and aggravating, yet amusing. Living in the huge apartment with his son Junior and the boy-man’s “pregnant” girlfriend, Lulu, and Oswaldo, a newly sober hanger-on, Pops needs to take action.
Pressure reaches the boiling point when Audrey, his former patrol partner and her boyfriend Dave, a police lieutenant who is trying to settle Pop’s prejudice case against the department for what appears to be self-interest, put pressure on Pop. The eviction notices seem to be moving toward forcing him out of the apartment. Oswaldo comes home drunk and physically attacks Pop. And the actions of a church lady who is trying to save his soul but may have ulterior motives has raised a new issue. Pop is between Riverside and crazy. Each time you think you have a handle on what’s going on, a new wrinkle in the plot evolves, causing an emotional readjustment.
The CPH production, as directed by Robert Barry Fleming, the theater’s associate artistic director, in his local directing debut, is well-paced, nicely nuanced, and plays the humor against the angst. The cast is excellent and nicely textures their performances, walking the thin line between comedy and drama.
Larry Marshall so well develops Pop that his naturalness makes you forget you are watching an actor portraying a role, but are peeking into the apartment and seeing reality. Zoë Sophia Garcia is Rosie Perez-delightful as the well-endowed Lulu, bringing the right level of humor to Junior’s live-in girlfriend and Pop’s caretaker and sometime confident.
Yvette Ganier almost steals the show as Church Lady. Her sex scene with Pop has to be one of the funniest enactments portrayed on a CPH stage. Dominic Colón, though sometimes difficult to understand due to a heavy accent and mumbling projection, is properly pathetic as Oswaldo, who clings to Pop as the father he desires, but does not have, yet lashes out against him when stressed. Ken Robinson (Junior), Danielle Skraastad (Detective Audrey O’Connor), and Michael Russotto (Lieutenant Dave Caro) are all effective in their portrayals.
The set, the apartment, is a co-star of the play. Unless it is believably expansive and desirable, the production falters. Fear not. Challenged by a staging that is done in the runway style of seating, with the audience on two sides of the stage and all action taking place in a long narrow space, between the segments of the playgoers, scenic designer Wilson Chin has created an appropriate apartment within the walls of a realistic building.
The difficulty in hearing is not Chin’s fault. It is a byproduct of the actors projecting in a horizontal space in which words get lost according to the way in which an actor faces. It is one of the issues faced by a director and cast when intimacy of audience to actors is placed ahead of clear sound projection which results from using runway staging.
CAPSULE JUDGMENT: Between Riverside and Crazy is an interesting set of character investigations within a plot which probably won’t fascinate, but will instill interest. The production is excellent, the set fascinating, the laughs enough to keep attention and diminish some of the angst, and offers viewers a chance to experience seldom used runway staging.
Between Riverside and Crazy runs through Sun 4/23 at the Allen Theatre in PlayhouseSquare. For tickets call 216-241-6000 or go to clevelandplayhouse.com.
[Written by Roy Berko, member, American Theatre Critics Association, Cleveland Critics Circle]
[Photos by Roger Mastroianni]