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Between Riverside and Crazy

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Stephen McKinley Henderson, Rosal Colón, and Victor Almanzar.
Photo by Kevin Thomas Garcia

For a man burdened with so many crippling problems, Walter Washington certainly is easygoing. Fighting an eternally churning lawsuit with the city? About to lose his apartment of 30-plus years? Living with one or more barely secret criminals? Having friends abandon him left and right? Getting constantly fleeced by former colleagues, family members, even serious churchgoers? No worries: It'll all work itself out somehow. Described this way, the philosophy may not make sense. But in Stephen Adly Guirgis's new play Between Riverside and Crazy, which just opened at the Atlantic Theater Company's Linda Gross Theater, and with Walter played by a never-better Stephen McKinley Henderson, it sure does.

That's because, both Guirgis and Henderson insist, Walter is far beyond the point of having nothing left to lose. A longtime cop, he was sidelined eight years ago by a rookie who shot him six times, while screaming a nasty racial epithet—this ended his career, and he's spent much of the time since fighting with the NYPD for the money he thinks he's due him. His wife just recently died, and he's still adjusting to life without her. He's had a heart attack and is fragile himself, and dealing with his no-good son, Junior (Ray Anthony Thomas), who's wanted by the police himself, Junior's maybe-not-a-streetwalker girlfriend Lulu (Rosal Colón), and Junior's trying-to-go-straight friend Oswaldo (Victor Almanzar), all of whom have taken up in his swank Riverside Drive apartment is not helping matters. And now that the city is threatening to evict him, after noticing just how closely he's been skirting the law for a while, what little he has would not appear destined to stay around for long.

But Walter's all about optimism and acceptance, and those two qualities that ensure that Guirgis's deceptively brutal script stays buoyant and even funny as it gets progressively darker. The playwright is something of an expert at this, as his previous plays (including Our Lady of 121st Street and Jesus Hopped the 'A' Train) have demonstrated, but in few cases has the balance been better than it is here. Guirgis weaves effortlessly between the mundane concerns of everyday life and the avalanche of despair that's forever hanging over Walter's head, and makes them feel like natural components of the same existence. You see how Walter's actions in one area inform the outcomes of another, and his sometimes-contradictory behavior always resolves itself into a justifiable personality given enough time. Walter is a man who knows what he wants and won't stop until he gets it, so all he has to do is wait until the rest of the world falls in line.

Others do occasionally appear—Walter's former partner on the force (Elizabeth Canavan) and her just-made-lieutenant fiancee (Michael Rispoli), an overly spiritual church lady (Liza Colón-Zayas) with a hidden agenda or two of her own—but they're only relevant in how they relate to Walter. That, in fact, is the one great weakness in Guirgis's play: No other character is as vivid or believable as he is. Junior, Lulu, and Oswaldo are drawn with particularly broad strokes, and the reasons they do the (usually destructive) things they do are not always entirely clear; the police officers are flat, book-quoting adversaries; and the church lady seems to be on hand only to demonstrate how religious people generally shouldn't act.

Director Austin Pendleton is not really able to compensate for this. He deals with individual scenes well enough, and has a keen eye for the underhanded comedy Guirgis so loves, but his over-reliance on Walt Spangler's revolving set, which is nonetheless excellent at depicting the sweeping expanse of Walter's luxuriously large apartment, too often dilutes the impact of some scenes' more decisive moments. (This is true during an intended-to-be-shocking reversal at the end of the first act, which lighting designer Keith Parham can't black out on because the set has to move.) The play would have been better served by a simpler, starker staging that's more in tune with the writing's visceral feelings.

For the most part, the same is true of the satellite performances. The standouts are Almanzar, whose intense focus brings a lot of entertaining color to Oswaldo, and Canavan, who nicely toes the line between caring and infuriating in trying to persuade Walter to give up his hopeless cause. But just about everyone else is more constricted by their roles, trying to bring additional life to characters who are largely functionaries. Though the others are typically fine, Colón-Zayas, despite her crack comic instinct that garners a fair number of laughs from her brief appearance in Act II, fails to level out her improbable character into someone anyone onstage could be truly invested in.

Henderson, thankfully, has no such problem. Though well known for playing wise-sidekick-style roles, frequently in August Wilson plays (though he just appeared in the Broadway production of A Raisin in the Sun), he's just as magnetic as a lead, too. His bright-eyed understatement as tinged by a decade of anger is ideal for Walter, and introduces plenty of alluring complexities into both him and the show. You can all but see the man struggle against his nastier nature throughout, one moment wanting to rage against the system that abandoned him, the next wanting to exploit it for everything he can, all the while not wanting to miss a moment of the life he's well aware he's rapidly departing from.

Walter, then, is as active as can be, a powerful fulcrum around which everyone else can—no, must—revolve. Henderson owns this aspect of the character as well, keeping Walter charmingly grandfatherly even as he's willing to sacrifice his closest family and friends in pursuit of what he considers justice. This man couldn't possibly hurt you, you say to yourself as he simultaneously negotiates away all your money, your necktie, and even your engagement ring in one fell swoop. You absolutely understand why he exerts such complete control over those who fall in his orbit. Even if you want to hate him, you can't. And, on some level, even his worst qualities are worth admiring.

Nothing else in the two-hour evening is quite as captivating, though nothing needs to be. All we need to see is how a lifetime of love followed by a decade of disappointment can twist a man's spirit into something that's at once unrecognizable and irresistible. And at encouraging that, Guirgis and Henderson unquestionably succeed, reminding us in Between Riverside and Crazy that sometimes unpredictable or apparently unwise actions aren't really crazy at all, but can, in fact, make more sense than anything else around.

Between Riverside and Crazy
Through August 16
Atlantic Theater Company at The Linda Gross Theater, 336 West 20th Street between 8th and 9th Avenues
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: OvationTix

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