Veteran character actor Stephen McKinley Henderson finally gets the leading role he so richly deserves in Between Riverside and Crazy, the latest effort from that poetic chronicler of urban strife, playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis (Jesus Hopped the A Train, Our Lady of 121st Street, The Motherfucker with the Hat). Playing the central character of ex-cop Walter “Pops” Washington, grievously wounded eight years earlier in an incident in which he was shot multiple times by a white rookie police officer, this alumnus of many August Wilson plays—including the 2010 Broadway revival of Fences starring Denzel Washington, for which he was nominated for a Tony Award—has created an indelible character who is alternately lovable and defiantly off-putting.
The play is now being given a production by the Second Stage Theatre after an acclaimed run at the Atlantic Theater Company last summer.
Pops, who likes to sit in a wheelchair not because he needs it but rather because “it’s comfortable,” lives in a spacious rent-controlled Riverside Drive apartment from which his landlord is desperately trying to evict him. Not helping Pops’ case are the various people frequenting the premises, including his petty criminal son Junior (Ron Cephas Jones, the sole newcomer in the cast); Junior’s curvy, frequently barely-clothed girlfriend Lulu (Rosal Colon), a possible former prostitute now studying accounting; and Oswaldo (Victor Almanzar), a recovering drug addict newly devoted to clean living.
The endlessly cantankerous Pops, who recently lost his wife to cancer, has a longtime lawsuit pending against the New York City Police Department about the shooting that took place in a seedy bar when he was off-duty and out of uniform. Strengthening his case is his assertion that the police officer who shot him hurled a racial epithet in the process.
Hosting his former partner Detective O’Connor (Elizabeth Canavan) for dinner, Pops finds himself urged by her fiancé, Lieutenant Caro (Michael Rispoli), who clearly has aspirations for advancement in the department, to sign a non-disclosure agreement and settle the case. Caro’s genial demeanor barely masks his aggressive approach which includes threatening to hasten Pops’ eviction from his home if he doesn’t cooperate.
Featuring hilariously pungent, profanity-laden dialogue and deceptively complex characterizations, the play feels somewhat rambling in its plotting. But it offers many memorable scenes, including Pops’ violent encounter with a now-crazed Oswaldo after his drug relapse and a visit by a “Church Lady” (a terrific Lisa Colon-Zayas) who offers a decidedly unorthodox method of spiritual and, in this case, physical healing that results in his suffering a near-fatal heart attack.
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As brilliantly played by Henderson, Pops is an endlessly fascinating figure, capable of both casual viciousness—his final demand for settling the case is gasp-inducing—and tender solicitude. But all of the characters register with surprising complexity, with the finely honed ensemble superbly directed by Austin Pendleton fully conveying their often paradoxical behavior.
The play feels fully, deeply lived-in; an aspect further enhanced by Walt Spangler’s superbly realized revolving set that depicts the various areas of the sprawling run-down apartment with detailed verisimilitude. From its tattered Christmas tree—the play takes place months after the holidays—to its comfortably cozy kitchen in which much of the kitchen sink drama takes place, it registers as a memorable character in its own right.
Cast: Victor Almanzar, Elizabeth Canavan, Rosal Colon, Lisa Colon-Zayas, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Ron Cephas Jones, Michael Rispoli
Director: Austin Pendleton
Playwright: Stephen Adly Guirgis
Scenic designer: Walt Spangler
Costume designer: Alexis Forte
Lighting designer: Alexis Forte
Original music and sound designer: Ryan Rumery
Production: Atlantic Theater Company in association with Scott Rudin
Presented by the Second Stage Theatre