It’s hard not to fall instantly in love with Pops at the beginning of this must-see Broadway production of the 2015 Pulitzer Prize winning play by Stephen Adly Guirgis, the playwright laureate of streetwise New Yorkers.
When we first see Walter “Pops” Washington (the incomparable Stephen McKinley Henderson), the “feeble old patriotic tax-paying African American ex-cop, war hero, senior citizen” (as he later calls himself) is sitting at the kitchen table in his immense rent-controlled apartment on Manhattan’s elegant Riverside Drive, sitting in the wheelchair that his wife used in the last years of her life. It is Saturday morning and he is having breakfast, which consists of pie and whiskey.
One of his guests, Oswaldo (Victor Almanzar) offers him fresh organic almonds from Whole Foods instead. “Don’t take this wrong,” Oswaldo says, “but they say pie is like poison.”
“Pie ain’t like poison, Oswaldo,” Pops says. “Pie is like pie.”
“I know, but they said…”
Pops interrupts. “’They’ always saying something. Then later, they’ll go and say something else that’s inevitably completely ass-backwards from what they originally said…Don’t be surprised if we learn in the future that almonds cause cancer.”
It’s a funny exchange, but also a sly clue. What Pops is saying about “they” is also true of all seven characters in “Between Riverside and Crazy,” especially Pops himself. They are not as they initially seem. As subtle in its craft as it is blunt in its language — and performed by a first-rate cast — the play is likely to make you delight in all the New Yorkers on stage in the first act…and then force you to question your initial judgement in the second.
Pops is a quintessential New Yorker: Stubborn and feisty, he is fighting the forces that be on a couple of fronts. He is fending off efforts to get rid of him by the landlord, who could get ten times the monthly rent with a new tenant. He is also continuing with a lawsuit against the City of New York, refusing to settle the case that began eight years earlier, he was shot six times by a white police officer.
But if he is beset with challenges, he also seems supported by friends and family. In the year since the death of his wife, he has invited three people to live with him: His son Junior (portrayed by Common), Junior’s friend Oswaldo and Junior’s girlfriend Lulu (Rosal Colón.) Pops is visited regularly by a character known only as Church Lady, and has dinner with his former partner on the police force, Audry O’Connor, who’s now a detective (Elizabeth Canavan) and her fiancé, who Lieutenant Caro (Michael Rispoli.) But Junior is an ex-con who might still be a con, his friend and his girlfriend’s good citizenship status is at best tentative (“I may look how I look, but that don’t mean I am how I look,” Lulu says – another clue.) The Church Lady (Liza Colón-Zayas) offers Pops an unorthodox way to heal and to convince him to take communion. And at the end of the long, fun-filled dinner, it abruptly becomes clear that Lieutenant Caro has an ulterior motive (and Detective O’Connor, in cahoots with her fiancé but still apparently caring about her former partner, has at least mixed motives) – to try to get Pops to settle his lawsuit, and sign a non-disclosure agreement, the securing of which would help the ambitious officer rise up in the ranks of the NYPD. What follows is a revelation: The story, and backstory, is complicated; Pops’ stubbornness is often far from admirable; and Guirgis is impressively savvy about the ins and outs of New York City and the ways of New Yorkers. The playwright has a magnificent ear for the con and doubletalk in everyday conversation. At one point, Lieutenant Caro, trying to mollify (and eventually persuade) an unyielding Pops, says to him: “Personally, I would love to be able to agree with you completely. Because if not for the fact that you happen to be totally wrong, you’d probably be right. And I mean that.”
“Between Riverside and Crazy” was first performed in 2014 Off-Broadway with the same director, the same design team, and much the same cast, — the only newcomer is Common — and their comfort with their roles, and with each other, is palpable and rewarding. We may question our initial love of their characters, but by the end we accept them. We realize that, just as “Between Riverside and Crazy” toggles between sacred and profane, truth and fiction, funny and sad, so do real people, and this cast makes these people real.
Between Riverside and Crazy
Second Stage’s Hayes Theater through February 12. Extends to February 19.
Running time: Two hours including an intermission
Tickets for “Simulcast”: $68. (The simultaneous streaming of the live performances will take place from January 31 to February 12.)
Written by Stephen Adly Guirgis
Directed by Austin Pendleton
Scenic Design by Walt Spangler; Costume Design by Alexis Forte; Lighting Design by Keith Parham; Sound Design by Ryan Rumery
Cast: Common, Victor Almanzar, Elizabeth Canavan, Rosal Colón, Liza Colón-Zayas, Stephen Mckinley Henderson, and Michael Rispoli