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Review: Between Riverside and Crazy Is the Anti-Tragedy We Need Right Now

Stephen Adly Guirgis's exceptional comedy-drama arrives on Broadway.

Stephen McKinley Henderson plays Walter, Victor Almanzar plays Oswaldo, and Common plays Junior in Stephen Adly Guirgis's Between Riverside and Crazy, directed by Austin Pendleton, for Second Stage Theater at Broadway's Helen Hayes Theater.
(© Joan Marcus)

If tyranny should ever take hold in America, it will be fueled by the efforts of middle managers attempting to secure a promotion. If this isn't apparent to you in your working life, you'll be tempted to reassess after seeing the Broadway debut of Between Riverside and Crazy, Stephen Adly Guirgis's David-and-Goliath story of humanity standing athwart pitiless bureaucracy.

Featuring much of the original cast from off-Broadway runs at Atlantic Theater Company in 2014 and Second Stage in 2015, the production has moved to Second Stage's Broadway house, the Hayes Theater, where the performances in this astonishing comedy-drama have aged like a fine wine.

Stephen McKinley Henderson reprises his role as Walter Washington, a widower ex-cop who lives in a spacious rent-controlled apartment on Riverside Drive with his son, Junior (Common, making a memorable Broadway debut). Cohabiting with them semi-permanently are Junior's girlfriend, Lulu (a glowing Rosal Colón), and Oswaldo (adorably sincere Victor Almanzar), an ex-convict and recovering addict. They all refer to Walter as "Pops" and, in his own gruff way, Walter happily fulfills the role of everyone's dad.

Walter has been pursuing a lawsuit against the NYPD ever since he was shot by another officer while off-duty and drinking at an illegal club eight years ago. A carefree dinner with his former beat partner, Audrey (Elizabeth Canavan), and her fiancé, Lieutenant Caro (Michael Rispoli), suddenly turns serious when Caro ambushes Walter with a request on behalf of the NYPD to settle. It's clear that Caro stands to benefit if he can remove this thorn from the side of city bureaucracy before the next election.

Stephen McKinley Henderson, Elizabeth Canavan, Michael Rispoli, Rosal Colon, and Common appear in Stephen Adly Guirgis's Between Riverside and Crazy, directed by Austin Pendleton, for Second Stage Theater at Broadway's Helen Hayes Theater.
(© Joan Marcus)

Rispoli delivers his lines with practiced dispassion, a useful trait when talking-down drunks, testifying on the witness stand, or pushing an agenda in a management meeting. When pleading fails, Caro moves on to threats about Junior's illegal activities and the stability of Walter's lease, all delivered in the same tone. As Audrey, Canavan's style is more emotional: She invokes Walter's dead wife and contends, "There wasn't a person in that club that you didn't hold in complete contempt — including yourself, Walter." That they think this good-cop-bad-cop routine will work reveals their level of esteem for her old partner.

"Show me one cop who actually does his job, sees what we see, becomes what the streets makes us become — show me one cop who did what I did for 30 years who likes himself," Walter angrily responds. Henderson gives a heroically human performance, winning the audience to Walter's side not in spite of his flaws, but because of them. Like Lear, he rages against the wind and proudly invites the full force of a mighty bureaucracy that Caro describes as the wheel: "The wheel's gonna keep turning whether it's gotta grind out your guts or not." Millions of Americans know what that grind feels like, either as cogs in the machine or as meat. Are we sure tyranny is not already here?

Walter's battle against the machine is what resonated with me the most in Between Riverside and Crazy, but Guirgis is too clever a playwright to be tethered to one easily digestible theme: The friction between father and son, the porous border between hope and despair, and the great chasm between our ideals and reality all come into focus in this remarkable drama. With a sensitive ear for the language of New York and a keen sense of what makes each of his characters unique, Guirgis has written a play that is as complex and wondrous as the world we inhabit.

He even inserts an element of the unexplained through a Brazilian church lady who visits Walter at the top of the second act. Liza Colón-Zayas plays this role with witchy intensity, blurring the lines between fraud and genuine mystery as she casts a spell over the whole house, very much aided by Keith Parham's sneaky and suggestive lighting. It primes us to reconsider what is real and what is possible.

Stephen McKinley Henderson plays Walter, and Rosal Colón plays Lulu in Stephen Adly Guirgis's Between Riverside and Crazy, directed by Austin Pendleton, for Second Stage Theater at Broadway's Helen Hayes Theater.
(© Joan Marcus)

Director Austin Pendleton achieves this perfect mixture of the magical and mundane through uniformly strong performances and a design that establishes the world of the play from the moment we enter the theater and see Walt Spangler's rotating set: The skinny Christmas tree and the overpopulated kitchen counter put us in a New York apartment that has been lived in — one that won't be making the pages of any magazines despite the fashionable address.

Alexis Forte's costumes convey the compromise of vision and execution that results in all our clothing choices (she has the most fun with Lulu, although Walter's final suit tells the most vivid story). And Ryan Rumery's sound subtly influences our emotions even before the first line is spoken.

The tale of a proud man who grabs what life has to offer while he still can, Between Riverside and Crazy is the ideal anti-tragedy for the holiday season. It's a reminder that perfect people don't exist, so we need not reserve our love for them. The beautiful imperfect people around us will do just fine.

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