Stephen Adly Guirgis’s 2015 Pulitzer Prize-winning play BETWEEN RIVERSIDE AND CRAZY, now in its Chicago premiere at Steppenwolf Theatre Company, focuses on issues of racism and indignity that are searingly of this moment. But RIVERSIDE is, at its core, also rife with humor and heart.
The play centers on retired black cop Pops (Eamonn Walker, perhaps best known for his role as Chief Boden on “Chicago Fire”) who’s desperate to hold on to his expansive, rent-controlled apartment on New York City’s Riverside Drive. Pops is also still reeling from an incident years earlier, when he was shot several times at a bar by a white rookie police officer (who, as Pops notes, “somehow didn’t hit anything white.”) And though some details of the event are murky, Pops also asserts that the cop addressed him using a racial epithet in the process. In RIVERSIDE, Pops still seeks justice, as his former colleague Detective O’Connor (Audrey Francis) and her fiance David Caro (Tim Hopper) urge him to reach a settlement with the NYPD. Pops’s apartment also plays host to a ragtag collection of residents, including his ex-con son Junior (James Vincent Meredith), Junior’s quirky but well-intentioned girlfriend Lulu (Elena Marisa Flores), and Oswaldo (Victor Almanzar), a recovering drug addict.
In assembling RIVERSIDE’s cast of characters, Guirgis has put together a community that manages to be simultaneously co-dependent and unabashedly selfish. RIVERSIDE devotes much of its running time to exploring this inherent tension, which seems to echo the distrust and doubt that exist in American society at present. And in constructing this paradox, Guirgis also makes clear Pops’s central role in the action. Indeed, both Lulu and Oswaldo look to Pops as a parental figure, though they have no blood relation to him. Pops seems to relish these terms of endearment, in part because he still feels powerless after his experiences as a cop. And while Pops wants justice for himself, he doesn’t seem overly concerned with his son’s well-being. Junior seeks validation from his father but also continues to sell stolen electronics from his bedroom. Detective O’Connor cares deeply about Pops and wants him to give her away at her wedding, but she also wants him to settle with the NYPD and put her mind at ease. In this way, Guirgis paints a tangled web among his characters with results both poignant and hilarious.
All this action takes place on Collette Pollard’s masterful set, which was inspired by Guirgis’s own Riverside Drive apartment. Pollard’s set truly feels like a home. While we learn in the play that Pops’s apartment was well-maintained while his wife was alive, the place has fallen into a state of disrepair—and Pollard has artfully arranged clutter around the set. We see the dirty dishes piling up near the sink, piles of paper scattered throughout, and a fridge full of junk food. Natasha Vuchurovich Dukich’s costume designs reinforce each character’s unique personality, while Josh Schmidt’s sound design and original music add to the lively atmosphere.
Director Yasen Peyankov’s ensemble is impeccably cast, and the characters truly come bursting to life on the Steppenwolf stage. The actors are consistently terrific. Walker makes an excellent anchor as Pops, fully embodying his character’s indignation and also landing every laugh. Flores’s Lulu is endearingly clueless, and she immediately warms us to her character. Francis, always superlative, sets just the right tone as Detective O’Connor—we fully feel her character’s struggle between loyalty to Pops and her desire for his issue to just “go away.” Hopper provides spot-on swagger to Caro, who’s every bit the big shot. Meredith’s Junior manages to be both tough and yet achingly vulnerable in his desire to please his father. And Almanzar charms as Oswaldo but is also convincingly unsettling in one of the play’s darkest moments. Lily Mojewku is delightful in her second act performance as the Church Lady who visits Pops and attempts to make him take communion (though she may ultimately have other motives up her sleeve).
BETWEEN RIVERSIDE AND CRAZY is the epitome of a well-balanced play. While Pops’s past and strive towards dignity are never treated lightly, this show also has plenty of wry, entertaining moments. Guirgis’s writing has such specificity that allows him to explore timely issues and beautifully develop relationships—and I could not ask for a better cast to bring these characters to life. While the residents of this apartment may have messy lives and a tendency towards self-indulgence, BETWEEN RIVERSIDE AND CRAZY had me completely—and empathetically—absorbed in them.
BETWEEN RIVERSIDE AND CRAZY plays through August 21 at Steppenwolf Theatre Company, 1650 North Halsted Street. Visit Steppenwolf.org for tickets and more information.
Read the original review on PerformInk.
Photo by Michael Brosilow