Such a bubbling, darkly comic world in which to our abundant enlightenment, all that is solid melts into thin air. This is the Studio Theatre production of the vinegary urban domain devised by Stephen Adly Guirgis in his 2015 Pulitzer Prize winning play, Between Riverside and Crazy.
Be ready; a sense of control will be not easy to find for that is not what playwright Guirgis wants for his audience. Between Riverside and Crazy is no quiet mindful meditation with artsy music aimed at reducing audience stress. Between Riverside and Crazy is a raucous event to be etched into audience minds to stay awhile. Guirgis writes dialogue about seemingly downcast lives that is rhythmic jazz and soulful funk music with plenty of speed to it. His characters, whether female or male, are not blanched out, nor stereotypical stick figures. And Hallelujah, they are never boring. (Guirgis also penned the wondrously titled The Motherfucker with a Hat that Studio produced a few years back).
Between Riverside and Crazy is the closed-off world of ex-cop and recent widower Walter “Pops” Washington and some associates. He is an African-American New York City cop who had been shot 8 years earlier by a white rookie transit cop. Now he is in the business of saving souls as he is holed-up in his rent-controlled, big-ass apartment on Manhattan’s West Side. He is facing eviction while he waits and waits for a settlement of his long-standing law suit with New York City for the six-bullets inflicted on him. He is longing for a substantial sum of money. Then again was he at the wrong place at the wrong time, to mess with a Dr. John lyric?
Studio Theatre’s production of the disordered world of Riverside’s denizens is under the disciplined, meticulous direction of Brian MacDevitt. MacDevitt previously designed lighting for Studio’s Sucker Punch and The Real Thing and was the Production Designer for Murder Ballad. He is a member of the University of Maryland faculty. He is a five-time winner of the Tony Award for Lighting Design.
Played in an unforced manner by Frankie R. Faison (Tony and Drama Desk nomination for Best Supporting Actor for his role in August Wilson’s award-winning play Fences), Pops is a man in sharp conflict with himself, his family and those he comes in contact with. We first meet him as he sits in a wheelchair and we fall for being cat-fished for the apparently disabled, ex-cop. He is acidic, with raw open wounds. Far from a hero. Yet so clearly likable. People want to be in his presence.They want to have his love and attention. He fills a void in other’s lives. He also provides a home base for those like his son, his son’s girl-friend and his son’s BFF who have little certainty in their own lives.
Characters seem safe within the apartment’s solidity or up-on-the-roof that set designer Lee Savage has lovingly created with amazing details and touches. Savage’s set established a mood and character for the production that never falters. (When I gazed at the Riverside set before the show began, I could only whisper to myself, wow, Santo Loguasto and Woody Allen should be here).
The characters who relate to Pops include his unmoored son Junior (Bryant Bentley), a keyed-up, full of fast language friend of Junior named Oswaldo (Sean Carvajal), and a zesty, determined girl-friend of Junior named Lulu (played with verve by Jasmin Tavarez in her professional theater debut). Emily Townley and David Bishins as two police colleagues of Pops who are far from the expected conservative upholders of the law, and Cristina Frias as a mysterious Church Lady with an actively brazen touch in her dealings with Pops.
Each character who wanders into view wants Pops to give what they seem to be missing, a solid father-like figure, not a rolling stone who leaves them with eternal bleakness and little else. Just enjoy the sleight of hand each character presents.
Let me give some big applause to Eric Shimelonis for his sound design. From the several uses of Screaming Jay Hawkins’ “I Put a Spell On You” to James Brown’s “I Feel Good” to The Chi-Lites “Have You Seen Her?”, the music clearly underpin the show’s transitions and on-stage action impeccably. Dede M. Ayite’s costume design provides each character with a visual personality that can’t be missed. And don’t overlook dramaturg’s Lauren Halvorsen thorough notes in the program or Studio Artistic Director David Muse’s introductory welcome note.
Now be alert, and this is not a give-away, for dramaturg Halvorsen is not shy about mentioning this particular line of dialogue in her production notes. Early on, listen as these words permeate the production: “I may look how I look – but that don’t mean I am how I look.”
Are there downsides to the production? Well, on the night I saw the production it came across as a bit under-rehearsed. There were some beat bumps and dialogue issues that came across. But in its run I can only believe that Between Riverside and Crazy will become tighter, taking on a burnished patina worthy of the lives of people many rarely spend time with.
Over the course of Between Riverside and Crazy many a maelstrom and clash are depicted. The smart proceedings may start with comic touches, but soon all is sharp, strong, and intense and yes, unpredictable. My hope is that Riverside will lure with all its cons, players, and magical distortions. You get to decide for yourself at each and every moment.
Between Riverside and Crazy is a godsend for those attracted to contemporary theater about constantly bargaining, willful characters living a messy existence who are so much more than they first may seem. Let me also take this leap. The show reminds me in its way of early David Mamet and his themes and language focused on messy white folk. It is about time for new folk from a contemporary playwright who we can become mesmerized by. I look forward to what he may next have for us.
Running Time: Two hours and 15 minutes, with one 15-minute intermission.