Stepping into a rent-controlled apartment in New York City is an experience akin to time travel. Pre-war cabinetry, overstuffed antique furniture (that was not purchased in an antique store), and the type of New Yorkers you might only see in an old Woody Allen movie: These are all things you're likely to find in your typical rent-controlled apartment in Manhattan. Stephen Adly Guirgis invites audiences on just such a time warp in his brilliant and complicated new play, Between Riverside and Crazy, now making its world premiere at Atlantic Theater Company. The more time you spend in this apartment, however, the more you realize that nothing about it is typical or easily categorized.
Walter Washington (Stephen McKinley Henderson) is a widower and ex-cop who has been off the force and pursuing a contentious lawsuit with the NYPD ever since he was shot by a fellow officer. Washington claims the shooting was racially motivated. He spends most days holed up in his palatial Riverside Drive apartment, for which he has held a rent-controlled lease since 1978 and never missed a payment. His son, Junior (Ray Anthony Thomas), lives with him in addition to Junior's girlfriend, Lulu (Rosal Colón), and his recovering junkie buddy Oswaldo (Victor Almanzar). The landlord, who could get ten times the rent Walter pays if the apartment were on the market, is looking for any excuse to evict Walter. His shady houseguests might just be the key.
Meanwhile, the NYPD is looking to quietly settle with Walter. They send Lieutenant Dave Caro (Michael Rispoli) to seal the deal knowing that his fiancé, Audrey (Elizabeth Canavan), used to be Walter's partner on the beat. What begins as a wine-soaked dinner with friends soon turns into a legal negotiation. When Walter doesn't abandon his suit, Caro resorts to threats about the apartment and Junior's illicit activities, leaving Walter under siege from all sides.
Guirgis (The Motherf*cker With the Hat) is a master of the unsung songs of New York City. The complicated relationships he explores on stage feel authentic, as if they could only spring from decades of living in the city and all the contradictions that this entails. Director Austin Pendleton takes that rich source material and runs with it, resulting in a theatrical experience that is equal parts surprising, horrific, and wonderful. Nothing about this story is predictable or neat.
The second-act appearance of a Brazilian hooker-turned-church-lady (Liza Colón-Zayas) brings an element of magic into what was hitherto a highly realistic slice of life. Colón-Zayas casts a spell over the hushed theater with her witchy Santería act. It's the kind of moment that leaves jaded know-it-alls like Walter questioning everything.
Henderson endows Walter with a no-nonsense attitude that thinly masks a generous spirit. Guirgis' whip-smart language easily glides off his tongue. He hits the comic beats with the precision of a skilled musician. Still, he never crosses the line into cynicism, no matter how many misfortunes befall him. For this, you can't help but root for him.
Set designer Walt Spangler has painstakingly created the Washington home, sparing no detail from the peeling retro wallpaper to the Lysol cleaner resting next to the toilet bowl. The set rotates, giving us a close-up view of each room and allowing for seamless transitions between scenes.
As the set slowly spins during the intermission, a mournful church organ plays a steady chord, occasionally accented by a sad piano (original music by Ryan Rumery). Yet even this is just creating a bunch of misleading expectations, setting a mood that Pendleton and his company will quickly shatter with bizarre reality.
Guirgis has written a beguiling play that is as messy as real life and as dynamic as this ever-changing city. It's a love letter to urban life (warts and all) in a time when its popular image is increasingly white-washed and homogenous. This is one of the best new plays of the year.