The timing for Steppenwolf's production of Stephen Adly Guirgis' Between Riverside and Crazy seems, in a dark and perverse way, fortuitous. The story of a black man unjustly shot by a New York police officer hits hard this week. It hits a little harder when one realizes that, given the frequency with which these cases are in the news, this play opening on the week of a new shooting wasn't all that unlikely.
Eight years ago, Pops (Eamonn Walker), an African-American and a longtime police officer with the NYPD, was accidentally shot six times by a white rookie cop. Since then, Pops has been in a stubborn stand-off with the city, refusing to settle the lawsuit he brought against the police department. City Hall was previously content to let the case stagnate, but recent public scrutiny of race-based police brutality has compelled them to convince Pops to settle. His ex-partner and her fiancé (Audrey Francis and Tim Hopper, both excellent) are deployed, first to sweet-talk Pops, then to turn the screws.
Collette Pollard's richly detailed set, complete with stained-glass transoms, sets the hyper-realistic tone that extends throughout the first act. The palatial three-bedroom Riverside Drive apartment, rent-controlled at an absurdly low $1,500 a month, is cluttered and filthy. An artificial Christmas tree gathers dust on the window bench well into summer. The recently widowed Pops shares the apartment with his grown son Junior (James Vincent Meredith), who deals in stolen electronics, his squirrelly girlfriend Lulu (Elena Marisa Flores), and their friend Oswaldo (Victor Alamanzar) an addict in recovery. They each try to force Pops into the mold of whatever father figure they need. Lulu wants to be noticed and provided for, Oswaldo is clearly desperate for intimate companionship, and his actual son Junior tries to air out a lifetime of unspoken regrets. Pops, meanwhile, just hopes to drink himself to death with minimal interruption.
Under the direction of Yasen Peyankov, the cast creates raucous rhythms out of Stephen Adly Guirgis' script. The four tenants of the Riverside apartment buzz around one another with barely restrained tension. As Pops, Eamonn Walker deftly portrays a once-powerful man underneath layers of age, infirmity, and bitterness. James Vincent Meredith's understated performance as Junior reveals the rough edges of a man who's been in and out of jail. Elena Marisa Flores doesn't seem to have steady footing in the role of Lulu, but her comic delivery succeeds where her more dramatic moments do not. Victor Alamanzar provides the play's lightest moments, as well as its darkest, as the mercurial Oswaldo. Lily Mojekwu rounds out the ensemble with an erotically charged performance as the Church Lady. While Pollard's wonderful set is certainly the showiest design element, Scott Zielinski's dreamy lighting is no less on point. Natasha Vuchorovich Dukich's contemporary costume design helps underline the dynamics of class, race, and age that are in contention throughout the play.
If you're looking for a hot take on police brutality and systemic racism, Between Riverside and Crazy won't provide it. It offers no easy answers because, perhaps fittingly, the play presents no objective truth. The characters lie to themselves and to each other. Even their own memories are clouded. Guirgis' play embraces magical realism, allowing Pops to occasionally wander somewhere between reality and fantasy, most notably in scenes with the Church Lady. On Riverside Drive, reality exists in the haze of conflicting accounts, retracted memories, and half-true confessions shared over a bottle of whiskey. Between Riverside and Crazy is definitely not pleasant, nor is it attempting to be, but it will leave its audience thinking.