People who live in $1,500-per-month rent-stabilized units in New York City’s Upper West Side don’t generally elicit a lot of sympathy. No matter how deep their problems run, they can never escape the undercurrent of envy from those paying three times that for a glorified closet, and a kitchen equipped with a hot plate and mini-fridge.
Not even if you’re a the former NYC cop and widower Pops, who was shot multiple times by a white cop and left unable to work. It was a clear-cut case of hanging out in a sketchy bar while black. The violence from that night has come to define Pops’ life, even as others beg him to settle his case with the city and move on in Stephen Adly Guirgis’ 2015 Pulitzer Prize-winning play Between Riverside and Crazy, playing at Speakeasy Stage in Boston’s South End through October 13. The action is set in a tough town where the apartment may be big, but the problems of Guirgis’ characters are even bigger.
Pop by and stay awhile
Pops, played with former-cop roughness by Tyrees Allen with a voice that growls when he’s in a good mood and spits out staccato anger when he’s not, is the lord of a manor that is slowly sliding into decay. Three young people share in/squat at his place, and they all call him some variation of “Father”. His only actual progeny is Junior, played by Stewart Evan Smith with hangdog skulk. Junior is disappointed in himself, knows Pops is disappointed in him, and is glad his mother isn’t alive to see the petty electronics thief he’s become. Pops, for his part, is a tough taskmaster who demands a purity of motive from others that he doesn’t demand from himself.
If you’re looking for a feel-good plot and characters to cheer for as they lift themselves and others out of difficult situations, this isn’t the play for you. It’s got a set-you-on-edge kind of edginess, it pushes buttons, it tests limits in a way All in the Family used to in the 1970s. Just like in Archie Bunker’s house, you can tell the same arguments have been swirling around for years, never getting resolved but still emerging, precisely because they’ve never been resolved. Frustratingly, it seems certain characters don’t want certain issues resolved. If deep problems reach resolution, if blame is assigned and accepted, then the concept of fault becomes moot. That concept of fault is a recurring theme in the play.
Realistically, there are multiple problems the play addresses that can’t be magically solved by getting sober, by keeping the “right” sort of company, by bringing the stubborn around to the “correct” way of thinking, or by cutting a big check.
Some of the issues could have been taken care of long ago, some are rooted as deeply as race and class divides in this dark, dramatic comedy. Between Riverside and Crazy is tautly directed by Tiffany Green with deep understanding of the characters, their flaws, and their need to at least try to steer their own ships in the face of gale-force winds.
Pay up or shut up
Even though Pops is rich in real estate advantage and a nice city pension, he’s been bitterly holding out for eight years for a decent settlement from the city for the bullet holes pumped into him by a fellow cop. He’s opened up his home to Oswaldo, in the early stages of addiction recovery and preaching the gospel of healthy eating to Pops, who doesn’t want to hear it. Alejandro Simoes deftly moves Oswaldo from the cheerful ease of a character finally gaining control over his life to the devastation of losing that hard-earned control. Meanwhile, don’t think it’s lost on us, Lulu, (by Octavia Chavez-Richmond with perfect comedic timing) that you are smoking pot while pregnant. Or maybe Lulu isn’t really pregnant. Maybe she’s just trying to see how boyfriend Junior will react if he thinks she is.
Detective O’Connor (with toughness by Maureen Keiller) and her fiancee Lieutenant Caro (smarmily by Lewis D. Wheeler) pop in ostensibly for a social call, and unwittingly show all their cards. It becomes obvious that O’Connor and Caro are actually on NYPD assignment. If Pops would listen to reason and end his blood war with the city, and if the cops could be the ones to shepherd through such a deal, it could mean promotions. But you know how Pops is when he feels manipulated, controlled, managed. Not pleasant, that’s how.
So don’t expect to feel happy about the way things turn out. This play is one big game of poker. The characters who are careless enough to let their cards bleed end up shocked. They just don’t know what they don’t know. Pops is the one true card sharp in this play, the one who has absorbed all the knowledge of all the cards he’s ever seen, tucked that knowledge away for future reference, and then turns it against those who swaggered about when they should have perhaps shuffled along.
Let’s talk more about the comedic timing and character nuance, especially that of scantily clad supporting player Lulu. Chavez-Richmond shows us Lulu’s ditzy side, her general irresponsibility, and her intention to ride out this “majoring in accounting at City College” thing for as long as she can. But look closely at her face when she meets Lt. Caro. Lulu doesn’t like him and doesn’t trust him, and her stink-eye tells it all. This girl’s been around the block a few times, and if Lulu’s B.S. radar is activated, I’m listening.
Chavez-Richmond also gets the best lines in the play, but can still deliver an old standard and get roaring laughs from the crowd. Set-up: “How’s his prognosis?” Lulu: “Oh, it isn’t prognosis anymore. It’s pneumonia.” The sparkle just can’t come through in a review, you have to go experience it for yourself. It’s an oldie of a joke, lightly reworked from Woody Allen’s 1995 movie Mighty Aphrodite, and it was probably an oldie even before that. In Chavez-Richmond’s delivery, it’s brand new and a hilarious one-liner. And that’s just one of many she tosses out.
Can I get an amen?
Celeste Oliva as Church Lady is like no church lady you’ve ever seen, and it’s great to see an actress portraying an over 40-year-old woman allowed to show sensuality and a come-way-hither power. How much is it worth to a man when you give him back something he thought he’d lost forever, damn near killing him in the process? When what was given hearkens back to days of purpose, and power, and respect, it’s worth a whole lot, as we find out. Oliva plays her role with abandon, and Pops is eventually all the better for it.
The sets rang a bit hollow for me. I got how the place was supposed to look worn and dated. The part I didn’t get was why it looked like Pops’ wife had never had a hand in the place. It shouted out not only, “No woman lives here,” but “Ain’t no woman ever lived here.” Even though we were told that she kept things looking good when she was alive. It just looked like it had always been a bachelor pad, save for the gleaming batterie de cuisine hanging over the kitchen sink. Perhaps the unused pots and pans were a nod to the healthy meals that used to be served at the table before Pop’s wife died, and a can of Mountain Dew, Ring Dings, and boloney took over as what passed for breakfast..
I wouldn’t call Riverside family fare. Bring your older high school kids if they’re into theater, but not if they’re more the escapist sorts. Somewhere in between riverside and crazy is the gray and morally ambiguous area where characters are sometimes driven to certain behaviors that can be explained away by social factors or past betrayals, or maybe simply can’t be explained.
It was a real turn-off
An aside about the audience: supportive with the laughs and the applause, clueless with the technological devices. There we were, settled in after intermission, well into Act 2, when it happened. The pings of a device chimed once, then unbelievably, two additional and separate times (it wasn’t just three quick chimes signaling one message). And then, I kid you not, yet another device joined in from a different section of the theater. If we were in a sit-com, it would have been funny to see the cast member come out in his doctor’s costume during a logical break in the action to scold the audience. But we weren’t in a sit-com, we were all what looked like experienced theater-goers at a live Sunday matinee performance. It wasn’t funny at all. It was likely upsetting to the cast and definitely distracting to the audience. I told you the theme of fault ran throughout the entire play. In this case there was only inconsideration to blame, not institutionalized bias against i-phones or a power structure determined to silence a much-needed voice.
Turn off your cell phones, people.
Between Riverside and Crazy
With: Tyree Allen* (Pops); Maureen Keiller* (Detective O’Connor); Celeste Oliva* (Church Lady); Octavia Chavez-Richmond (Lulu); Alejandro Simoes (Oswaldo); Stewart Evan Smith (Junior); Lewis D. Wheeler* (Lieutenant Caro)
* Member of Actors’ Equity Union
Scenic design: Eric D. Diaz; Costume design by A.W. Nadine Grant; Lighting design by Daisy Long; Sound design by Nathan Leigh; Props design by Jennifer Butler; Production stage manager, Dawn Schall Saglio; Assistant stage manager, Cassie Cushing
Remaining performances through October 13 at SpeakEasy Stage, 527 Tremont St., Boston, 617-933-8600
The theater is handicapped accessible.