Past Reviews

Broadway Reviews

Between Riverside and Crazy

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - December 19, 2022

Between Riverside and Crazy by Stephen Adly Guirgis. Directed by Austin Pendleton. Scenic design by Walt Spangler. Costume design by Alexis Forte. Lighting design by Keith Parham. Original music and sound design by Ryan Rumery. Vocal coach Gigi Buffington.
Cast: Victor Almanzar, Elizabeth Canavan, Rosal Col√≥n, Liza Colón-Zayas, Common, Stephen McKinley Henderson, and Michael Rispoli.
Theater: Hayes Theater, 240 West 44th Street (Between Broadway and 8th Avenue)

Stephen McKinley Henderson Photo
Photo by Joan Marcus
Few can devise dialog as grippingly authentic as playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis is able to do. It's as though he somehow breathes life into a set of characters, places them in some challenging situation, and takes notes as their voices spontaneously emerge. Funny, disturbing, insightful, deceitful, and even bonkers, they are who they are, consistent in their own way but also as unpredictable as anyone we might encounter in "real life." Possibly Guirgis's most complex creation is Walter "Pops" Washington, a Black retired policeman and the lead character in his Pulitzer Prize-winning play Between Riverside and Crazy, now making its Broadway debut at the Hayes Theatre, blessedly with most of its original Off-Broadway cast and its director, the seemingly indefatigable Austin Pendleton, on hand.

Pops (Stephen McKinley Henderson, utter perfection) has lived in his rent-controlled apartment on Riverside Drive in New York City for a very long time. He has no intention of ever vacating, despite eviction notices being thrust at him on a regular basis. We first meet up with him at the breakfast table in the apartment, which has been smartly designed by Walt Spangler so that the rooms come into view as needed on the revolving stage.

From the start, we can see that Pops rules the roost by using a combination of genuine charm, humor and warmth, with perhaps a dash of innocent confuscation tossed into the mix. As we watch him interact with his son Junior (Common), Junior's girlfriend Lulu (Rosal Colón), and Junior's friend Oswaldo (Victor Almanzar), we get a sense that the younger generation all look up to him. In turn, he treats them with an off-the-cuff kindness they take to heart, an admired father or surrogate father to all. He's clearly one of the good guys, and we expect to see friends and family gather around to help him battle the seemingly relentless and greedy landlord.

Or not. Because with Guirgis, foreshadowing ain't what we learned it was in school. It seems there is so much more to the story and much more to learn about Pops, including the fact that his 30-year career on the police force ended when he was shot multiple times by a white rookie cop. Pops has been entangled in legal complications since then, and he is holding out for a large payment for his pains. He also carries a grudge that affects every other aspect of his life. When his longtime friend from the force, Detective O'Connor (Elizabeth Canavan), and her fiancé (Michael Rispoli) come to the apartment to discuss/arm twist a way to end the stand-off, we learn a great deal more about what motivates Pops, along with what he conveniently has failed to mention.

The Cast
Photo by Joan Marcus
So far, so good. The entire first act is not only character-driven, it's well-plotted, clearly delineated, and anchored in reality. But Guirgis, ever the tinkerer, takes Act II in a different direction, straying from the design that has been so carefully laid out and wandering into moments that are more fanciful than realistic. There is an especially unusual encounter with the "Church Lady" (Liza Colón-Zayas, giving a throw-all-caution-to-the-wind performance), who shows up ostensibly to salvage Pops' soul and assuage his body. Henderson and Colón-Zayas squeeze their scene for every absurdly comic moment, but it does feel as though it belongs to another play altogether, and much of the forward momentum dissipates the closer we come to the conclusion.

But if Between Riverside and Crazy does start to leak steam after its inspired first act, the same cannot be said of the strong cast, especially with Stephen McKinley Henderson giving such a supercharged performance in the lead role. The play could not be in better hands.