Crazy good on Riverside

The strivers and miscreants in Artists Rep's taut and slippery "Between Riverside and Crazy" crackle and pop with terrific verve

An apartment on Riverside Drive in Manhattan is the setting and in some ways the crux of Stephen Adly Guirgis’ 2015 Pulitzer-winning play Between Riverside and Crazy, currently getting a crackling Adriana Baer-helmed production at Artists Rep.

That geographical marker is important. A large, pre-WWII apartment in that highly desirable section of New York City has a lot of value. For the play’s central character, disgruntled ex-cop Walter “Pops” Washington, it’s his home of several decades, a place where he can shelter his ex-con son Junior and various friends. And, crucially, it’s on an increasingly rare rent-controlled lease. For the landlord, it’s a diamond in the rough, an apartment falling into disrepair but easily worth several times the current rent. And for city and police officials, we quickly learn, the property has turned into leverage in a long legal standoff over compensation for Pops’ being injured in a shooting by another cop.

Kevin Jones, Ben Newman, and Val Landrum in “Between Riverside and Crazy.” Photo: Russell J Young

And yet, something’s a little puzzling about that title, Between Riverside and Crazy. Whatever location that suggests is not a geographical one like “between Riverside and Broadway” or “between Riverside and the Hudson River.” Perhaps, for New Yorkers particularly, the title points to some sort of imagined behavioral terrain, between the posh conventionality a Riverside address connotes and some other, wilder impulses of human character. But who among Guirgis’ assemblage of strivers and miscreants and authority figures here is really “crazy”? There is depression, addiction, anger, and so forth, but there’s no “crazy.”

What there is in abundance is what Pops himself at one point — amidst his usual Gatling-gun criticism of Junior — calls fronting. Much like the shabby abode behind the chic address, initial appearances can be deceiving here: Deception and/or self-deception is at work with just about every character, in ways it would be a spoiler to outline too thoroughly. Suffice it to say that a sharp comic line from Junior’s perpetually half-dressed girlfriend Lulu (“Just because I look how I look, that don’t mean I am how I look!”) stealthily delivers a dramatic and thematic key.

In a way, Guirgis — whose similarly slippery play The Motherfucker With the Hat was a hit for Artists Rep in 2014 — fronts a bit, too. His set-up, with the apartment on the line and Pops inveighing against the white rookie cop who shot him eight years prior, could lead you to expect an examination of the big-city housing crunch or police brutality or racism. But although race stays stubbornly at center stage (this is America, after all), the play is more about lineage in terms of personality; about how upbringings and appetites, choices and circumstance clash to both make us who we are and keep us from being who we want to be.

Pops (Kevin Jones) and the Church Lady (Ayanna Berkshire). Photo: Russell J Young

“Always we are free,” Pops is reminded by a character called the Church Lady, who brings a surprisingly seductive sacrament. “Devils chase us, but always we are free.”

The play’s ambiguous, mercurial character demands a lot from the actor at its center, and Kevin Jones, who directed that aforementioned Motherfucker With the Hat and has been a central figure in the renewed local love affair with August Wilson’s work over the past decade, delivers an appropriately charged performance, by turns endearing and confounding, brimming with stubborn pride and caustic wit, yet flecked throughout with hints of fiercely suppressed grief and guilt.

Two characters serve as different oppositional mirrors to Pops. Most obviously so is Junior, who the redoubtable Bobby Bermea might have played as hardened ex-con but instead imbues with a combination of frustration and bitterness, tenderness and yearning, that will be recognizable to partially estranged sons everywhere. Pops’ more potent foil, though, is Lieutenant Dave Caro, the fiance of Pops’ former beat partner, who comes to butter up, bully and bargain with him over the legal settlement. Ben Newman nails the odd mix of reasonableness and reactive anger, good-hearted core and naked gamesmanship that make the character such a compelling counterweight to Pops’ self-righteous indignation.

Pops, a little banged up. Photo: Russell J Young

There’s great work, too, from Val Landrum as Pops’ conflicted former partner, Julana Torres as the naively needy Lulu, and Illya Torres-Garner as Junior’s friend Oswaldo, by turns puppyish and rabid. And special mention is due to Ayanna Berkshire as the Church Lady, who, despite an awkward-sounding Brazilian accent, dazzles in carrying out a role that surprisingly calls for the playbill credit of “intimacy choreographer” (kudos on that count to Amanda K. Cole).

On the whole, this is a deceptively complex and artfully constructed play, delivered here with terrific verve and attention to detail. Perhaps the location that matters even more than Riverside Drive, for now, is Southwest Alder Street, where this production runs through April 1.

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Between Riverside and Crazy continues through April 1 at Artists Rep. Ticket and schedule information here.

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