Kenny Leon’s True Colors Theatre Company is presenting Stephen Adly Guirgis’ 2015 Pulitzer Prize-winning comedy/drama “Between Riverside and Crazy,” directed by Eric J. Little. The show runs through Aug. 6.
The Pulitzer committee says “Riverside” is “a nuanced, beautifully written play about a retired police officer faced with eviction that uses dark comedy to confront questions of life and death.” Artistic Director Kenny Leon, Atlanta’s homegrown superstar producer and director, says the play is “an intelligent and witty exploration of race.”
When you hear that, it’s possible you may think, Oh dear, another “Sturm und Drang” exploration of race—the most provocative and important issue facing our country today. I assure you that “Riverside” is neither turgid nor depressing; on the contrary, playwright Guirgis’ work, while not ignoring serious themes, is bracing, surprising, and a lot of fun.
It’s also a paean to the citizens of New York City, who are savvy, witty, self-mocking, with b.s. detectors effective a mile away.
We meet Walter Washington (Earl Billings), called Pops by almost everyone, in conversation with a younger man named Oswaldo (Cristian Gonzalez), a recovering addict who’s been taken in by Junior (Keith Arthur Bolden), Pops’ real son. They all live in Pops’ comfortably large rent-controlled Riverside Drive apartment in Manhattan; also there’s Lulu (Annamaria Dvorak), Junior’s somewhat scatterbrained girlfriend.
Do you know about New York rent-controlled apartments? They’re fast-vanishing legends, as rare as rubies, and New Yorkers dream at night about having one. If you own one (Pops got his in 1978), you own some of most sought-after real estate in the country—at a fraction of the current selling price.
Pops’ (who is a retired policeman) tenancy is being vigorously contested by landlords; even his former squad partner, Detective Audrey O’Connor (Jerri Tubbs), drops in with her fiancé, Lieutenant Caro (Andrew Benator), to give Pops some smart but unsolicited legal advice about how much cash he can sock away if he gives up the apartment. But this Pops does not want to do.
There is also the Church Lady (Diany Rodriguez) who visits Pops in Act II, ostensibly to offer spiritual comfort (“You can have your freedom!”) to this elderly man in a wheelchair; Pops does not respond to her, so let’s just say she changes tactics. What follows is one of the funniest, sexiest, most outrageous displays of roaring theatricality I’ve ever seen. Ms. Rodriguez almost, but not quite, walks away with the entire play. I would call this short scene a perfect storm of casting, acting, and writing. You must not miss it, or the play.
The French writer André Gide once said: “Do not understand me too quickly.” That is true of almost every character in this play, especially Pops, played superbly by Mr. Billings, a veteran stage, TV, and film actor. He has a wonderful improvisational flair; many of his lines seem almost afterthoughts, as though they just occurred to him. He must carry the whole show, and he does.
But he has help from a very fine cast. Space does not permit me to sing their praises properly, but every actor I mentioned sparkles and shines. Director Little has expertly mined the quirks and nuances of each character, and the actors deliver.
The playwright has a wonderful talent for dialogue that draws you in, seduces you, and then knocks you for an unexpected loop as the characters pivot—just when you think you’ve got a bead on them. By the way there is strong language and adult situations; just so you know.
“Between Riverside and Crazy” features yet another excellent set by Moriah and Isabel Curley-Clay . I’m not sure what Atlanta theatre would do if they decided to decamp. Perish the thought.
Stephen Adly Guirgis didn’t win that Pulitzer by accident. And with True Colors, he has wonderful collaborators. See “Riverside” and watch him hold the mirror up to human nature—just as Shakespeare said theatre could do.
For tickets and information, visit truecolorstheatre.org.