‘Between Riverside and Crazy’ lies dramatic perfection on Broadway
The Daily Beast
December 20, 2022
Stephen Adly Guirgis’ brilliant Pulitzer-winning play about property and a stew of other New York tensions features a subtly towering performance by Stephen McKinley Henderson.
Are you in New York City for Christmas? Wondering how to spend one of those afternoons or evenings that seem to magically exist outside of time? Here is the perfect play, and one of the last Broadway openings of the year. Stephen Adly Guirgis’ Between Riverside and Crazy (Hayes Theater, to Feb 12), which won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2015 as well as a deserved host of other awards, is a buffed jewel of a production directed (perfectly) by Austin Pendleton, most recently seen stealing scenes as a shambolic local council member in The Minutes. It has a complementary jewel of a central performance by the Tony-nominated veteran actor Stephen McKinley Henderson as Walter Washington, aka Pops.
Henderson is supported by a group of other terrific performances—including by Rosal Colón as Pops’ son’s girlfriend Lulu, the Lucille Lortel Award-winning Liza Colón-Zayas as a mysterious woman from a local church, and Michael Rispoli as a manipulative, and also annoyingly extremely hilarious, former police colleague Lieutenant Caro—who bring the play’s stew of domestic turbulence, racial politics, and financial shenanigans to a witty, angry, and moving boil.
The cast is almost the same as it was when the play premiered in 2014 (the same year of its setting) at the Atlantic Theater Company, with the only addition/substitution being the Oscar, Emmy, and Grammy-winning artist and activist Common making his Broadway debut as Pops’ recently paroled son Junior, who Pops both loves and is ashamed of.
Pops is a Black New York cop whose career in the force was shattered when he was shot by a white colleague. He is pursuing a discrimination case against the NYPD, as well as overseeing the comings-and goings of his extremely scuffed and homely rent-controlled apartment on the Upper West Side—an occupancy as imperiled as so many of the relationships on stage are: between Pops and Junior, and between Pops and his former professional partners, Caro and Audrey/Detective O’Connor (Elizabeth Canavan), who want him to cut a deal with the NYPD.
Victor Almanzar plays Oswaldo, a recovering addict who also calls this cluttered apartment home, and who seems both protective of Pops. Around all of these jostling presences is the anchoring, gruff, droll, fierce presence of Pops, seated at the kitchen table as if he were Dr. Who at the console of the Tardis. This apartment is his fort against the world, and he will do all he has to to keep hold of it. Not for nothing do Oswaldo and Lulu, not biologically related to him, call him “dad.”
The first person to fruitlessly try and change Pops is Oswaldo when it comes to diet, only to be told firmly: “Pie ain’t like poison, Oswaldo—pie is like pie!” Pops is a growling dispenser of kvetchiness, rounding on supposed experts dictating what to eat. “‘They’ always saying something. Then later, they’ll go and say something else that’s inevitably completely ass-backwards from what they originally said! Happens all the time. For example, them almonds. Don’t be surprised if we learn in the future that almonds cause Cancer.” Now, he instructs Oswaldo, get the Cool Whip from the fridge. Throughout the play, Pops affectionately disparages his own dog as only a dog-lover could.
The play is New York to its marrow: the straight-talk, the zingers, the BS-shredding conversations, and also—above it all—the theme of property, its ownership and how important it is to keep hold of a rent-controlled slice of it for as long as possible. Pops is also grieving the death of his wife. Henderson’s subtly towering performance—wily, tough, and not countenancing what he sees as crass manipulations for a second, especially from those he knows best—echoes the wonderful set by Walt Spangler, which is an evocative character in itself, or at least an encompassing mirror for the characters it contains.
In a rotating series of rooms–kitchen, living room bedroom—we keenly, pungently sense this apartment, and all the memories it contains, the safety it symbolizes, and the warmth and security that will not be forsaken easily. It is the middle of summer, and a Christmas tree is lit brightly. The apartment and Pops and the city are one; Guirgis describes what is in front of us as “a rent-controlled Palace ruled by a grieving despot King.” Pops is protecting this home against all the outside forces that destabilize security and community. Pops is the passion of New York, and its cunning, strength, and hardy sense of resistance. And he, like the city, is no saint and far from perfect, as the play uncovers and makes clear.
Henderson also shows Pops as both comfortable and challenging with the range of characters that seek to love, injure, or trick him. To the church lady, who genuinely seems to have a second sight with him, he ultimately sees why she behaves as she does, ultimately showing not just mercy but a genuine empathy and understanding. He also loves that she’s as blithely sharp as he is. To a person who almost kills him he opens his home again.
When it comes to Caro—whose ranging speech damning all “that miserable Giuliani cocksucker” stands for is magnificent, and one of the best production showstoppers on Broadway—Pops de-threads his overtures of long friendship and shared work experiences, all made to encourage Pops to accept a deal made by the department in the discrimination case. Instead, Pops slams Caro for overlooking the racism he had experienced as a cop; no, he makes clear, they were not all cops together. He was a Black cop treated dismissively and worse; his shooting was no accident, but the grim apex and culmination of discrimination.
“Everybody hates fuckin cops—even cops hate cops,” Pops says. “And everybody especially don’t like Black cops! White cops were never comfortable with us, Black civilians think we Uncle Tom, White civilians think we Uppity, and sees we’re Black and thinks we’re somehow qualified to carry a badge and a gun—”
Guirgis’ indictment of racism in the police force—that has only become more sharply pertinent since 2014—is not the heart of the play. He doesn’t make Lieutenant Caro and Detective O’Connor villains either; you sense their care for Pops, as well as their insensitivity and self-interest. The play is a wind tunnel of blast and counter-blast. The duo tell a set of truths about Pops as he rightly condemns them.
There’s a quietly written scene with Junior towards the end, making clear the men’s bond and love. Colón makes Lulu funny—Pops wonders why she has to wear so little when getting stuff from the fridge as she literally, unselfconsciously twerks while opening its door—while she is also the quiet heart of the home, trying to build a life, cultivate dreams, and caring for her “dad” as deeply as he admires her, just as he also thinks—wrongly or rightly—she and Junior don’t make the right match.
Guirgis’ play is full of these piercing, inconclusive sub-plots and character portraits—an intricately composed feast of voices where everyone is more than an easy definition of good or bad, and the chorus of views and competing interests is really the melting pot of the city outside the theater, sieved and delivered with sharpened brio on stage. As New York gets quieter in these Christmas weeks, it may be the perfect time to hear those voices at full volume.