|BETWEEN RIVERSIDE AND CRAZY|
For decades, Stephen McKinley Henderson has been given appetizer-sized parts on Broadway and made an entrée out of each of them. So, thank goodness that Stephen Adly Guirgis cooked up a three-course meal for Henderson in his exhilarating and poignant 2014 play “Between Riverside and Crazy,” which is now getting a long overdue Broadway production at Second Stage’s Hayes Theater under Austin Pendleton’s pitch-perfect direction.
To say Henderson eats up what has been served to him in the Pulitzer Prize-winning drama is to be guilty of true understatement. His portrayal of the irascible, foul-mouthed, deeply stubborn – yet sometimes kind -- Walter “Pops” Washington – is among this season’s greatest performances.
We first meet Walter sitting in a wheelchair in the kitchen of his spacious, rent-controlled Riverside Drive apartment (evocatively designed by Walt Spangler), exchanging a variety of profanities and pleasantries over breakfast with ex-con Oswaldo (a fine Victor Almanzar), who lives with him and calls him “Dad.” This unusual household also include Walter’s biological son, the frustrated ex-con Junior (the multi-talented Common in an auspicious Broadway debut), Junior’s seemingly sweet, dumb-as-a-stick girlfriend Lulu (a hilarious Rosal Colon), as well as unseen dog that gets talked about quite a bit, not often in the kindest terms.
But what we see in the opening scene is both literally and figuratively just the beginning. Layer by layer, Guirgis deftly reveals that Walter is an embittered, alcoholic, mad-at-the-world (and mad at himself) ex-cop, who is determined to make the NYPD pay big for being shot by a (white) cop eight years earlier, no matter the costs to anyone or anything else who stands in his way.
Ultimately, that list also includes his supposedly adoring ex-partner Audrey (a fine Elizabeth Canavan) and her fiancé, fellow cop Lieutenant Caro (a superb Michael Rispoli), an alternately tough-and-tender lug whose main job is to get Walter to settle his long-standing beef with the department once and for all.
Caro’s pleas to Walter’s to see things his way, as well as Walter’s unwavering resistance to Caro’s insistent entreaties, don’t make complete sense until the middle of Act II, when all the cards both men hold are finally laid on the table. This final confrontation is just one of many outstanding scenes in the play, all of which take advantage of Gurigis’ splendid use of the everyday verancular,
For some audiences, the most moving scene will be when Walter and Junior finally come to some sort of understanding about their relationship -- during which Walter also admits he has finally come to a true understanding of who he is and why he’s lived his life as he has.
For other theatergoers, however, the finest vignette is the brief yet life-changing encounter between Walter and a visiting unnamed woman from the local church, played to perfection by the fabulous Liza Colon-Zayas. The pair’s chemistry is so strong you can’t take your eyes off either of them, even as you’re wondering if you’re watching reality or illusion.
Indeed, much of the beauty of Guirgis’ play is how often it curves off the road you might expect it to stay on. Thankfully, the work could have no better driver than the amazing Henderson, who is in full control of every twist and turn. So don’t be crazy; just fasten your seatbelt and come along for the ride!
By Brian Scott Lipton
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