When I saw Stephen Adly Guirgis‘s Pulitzer Prize-winning play Between Riverside and Crazy, it put me in a New York state of mind. Now running at Artists Repertory Theatre, the play does not depict the New York of the Billy Joel song. There is nothing romantic about Walter “Pops” Washington (Kevin Jones) and the characters who live with him rent free in his apartment on Riverside Drive in New York City. There’s his son Junior (Bobby Bermea), who just got out of jail, Junior’s girlfriend Lulu (Julana Torres), who may or may not be pregnant, and Junior’s friend Oswaldo (Illya Torres-Garner), who is clean and sober for the moment. Everybody gets along, more or less, but beneath the surface calm, things are boiling.
The landlord doesn’t like them much either, and is trying to evict Walter from his rent-controlled apartment. Recently widowed, a retired policeman, Walter drowns his sorrows in cheap whiskey and continues an eight-year feud with his past employer, NYPD. He was disabled when he was shot while off duty by a young, white cop. Pops claims the kid shot him because he’s black.
Then Walter’s former partner, Detective Audrey O’Connor (Val Landrum) and her fiancé Lieutenant Caro (Ben Newman) come to dinner. They attempt to convince Walter to drop the lawsuit against the city and accept its offer. In a drunken rage Walter throws them out.
As the play goes forward, Walter’s life moves from bad to worse. The audience starts to wonder why Caro and O’Connor are so invested in getting Walter to sign off with the city. We are momentarily distracted, however, when the Church Lady (Ayanna Berkshire) comes to call, because she quickly and absolutely changes everything!
While universal in its theme, this is a story that only could happen in New York City. It’s the accents. The attitudes. The personalities. The language. It’s crude, crazy, desperately comedic, and dark. And, Between Riverside and Crazy is set against a backdrop of pervasive, institutionalized racism that creeps into the story at every juncture. Says Kevin Jones of his character, “I can relate to the regret [Pops] has in his life. As an African American man he is still trying to figure out what’s next, and if it’s worth it to keep going. He’s lost his wife, he almost lost his own life, and with that he’s lost his passion for life.”
Kevin Jones is a tour de force as Walter. Adriana Baer directs the play with surgical precision, showing every performer to his or her best advantage. We can thank costume designer Alison Heryer for Lulu’s jaw-dropping fashion statements. Scenic designer Kristeen Willis Crosser even maps out the apartment floor plan in period molding above our heads.
Between Riverside and Crazy continues its run at Artists Rep through April 1. Fine for mature teens and older.