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As in all of Stephen Adly Guirgis’s plays, Between Riverside and Crazy drops you off at the intersection of absurd, tragic, profane, and sublime. The traffic is coming from all directions. All you can do is stay alert and watch for an opening.
In this case, the intersection is located in a big apartment on Riverside belonging to Pops (Stephen McKinley Henderson), who’s getting the massive place for a steal due to rent control. It’s summer and hot as hell, but the Christmas tree is still up. Junior (Ron Cephas Jones), recently released from jail, is living there too. So is Junior’s girlfriend Lulu (Rosal Colón), who calls Pops “Dad,” and his friend Oswaldo (Victor Almanzo), who’s in recovery and spending time trying to find a job and get Pops to eat better. Pops is generous, but gruff—“guests don’t pay no rent,” he tells Oswaldo—and as the story goes on, it becomes clear that his life, that everyone’s long-stalled lives, are about to change.
Under the direction of Austin Pendleton, the story takes place on a single rotating set with multiple rooms—a kitchen, a shabby Christmas tree, a small bedroom—and a metal platform out to the side for a breath of fresh air. The canvas is familiar, then, which lets the whirligig storytelling characters stand out in bold relief.
Guirgis’s characters in general think they’ve already hit rock bottom and are on the way up: serving time, attending meetings, settling old debts, getting their lives together. But they’re usually also pulling at a fraying rope, and Guirgis is skilled at locating the pain point: the place where the bruise of the past is still fresh and tender, and pushing on it until characters can’t will their way out of the pain. They wind up depending on old-fashioned human things to keep on living: love, empathy, and even things like grace.
In Pops’s case, the pain point is his loneliness and destroyed sense of self after his wife’s passing and his lengthy battle with the City; he retired early from the police force after being shot while off-duty by a white cop, and the City won’t give him the money he feels he’s owed. This point makes audiences shift in their seats, so timely that you can’t help but squirm. (Between Riverside and Crazy was first produced at The Atlantic Theater last August.) It doesn’t help that the people appointed to try and reason with him—O’Connor (Elizabeth Canavan), Pops’s old partner, and her fiancé Lieutenant Caro (Michael Risoli) are fellow cops, but also white, employed, and very satisfied with life.
Race at once the point and not the point, though. There are deeper needs felt by every broken person in different ways, according to their brokenness. Guirgis’s gift is in locating what his characters frequently call “grace” in moments so ludicrous they don’t appear as such at first. Pops’s moment of grace comes when a Church Lady (Liza Colón-Zayas) visits him, and— well, let’s just say, a moment of ecstasy ensues, and not exactly the religious kind.
The fact that these epiphanies and small marks of love come in the middle of long, frequently hilarious stories and monologues is what makes Between Riverside and Crazy so fun to watch, and also gut-punching. I hadn’t stopped thinking about it a week later. The story’s joy bubbles up out of many shades of pain and is sharp when it arrives. But that’s life, if we’re being honest: lived between our history and our personal pathology. What makes a person is his failures, and also his small moments of love.