Val Landrum

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.”

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Family fuss? It’s only human

In the comic drama "The Humans" at Artists Rep, Thanksgiving dinner with the Blakes just might knock the stuffing out of you

Maybe you missed it last year when that big musical about the Founding Fathers was the talk of the Tonys and just about anyplace else you turned. But while Hamilton was sweeping up most of the attention and a bunch of Tony Awards, including best new musical, a much smaller play was making its own mark: Stephen Karam’s family comedy-drama The Humans, which took the award for best new play, plus two more for best performers and one for best set design. If it never broke through as a pop-cultural phenomenon the way Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical hit has, The Humans has left its mark, and is likely to be produced many times for many years on many regional stages.

From left: Vana O’Brien (in wheelchair), Quinlan Fitzgerald (partially hidden), John San Nicolas, Luisa Sermol, Val Landrum (partially hidden), Robert Pescovitz. Photo: Russell J Young

On Saturday night it opened on Artists Repertory Theatre’s Morrison Stage after a week of preview performances, beating Hamilton to the Portland punch. (A few Portlanders got a first look at The Humans a little over a year ago, when The Reading Parlor performed an engaging and decidedly promising one-night staged reading of it in a little side room at Artists Rep.) The Hamilton road company will settle into Keller Auditorium for a run March 20-April 8 next year, and I can still hear the wails reverberating from frustrated potential ticket buyers who couldn’t get through on the phone lines when advance sales kicked off Nov. 17.

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Sub-standard hero at the food court

Artists Rep's fast-food comedy "American Hero" is deftly produced and performed, but the script sandwich holds more than the mayo

Everybody’s gotta eat. And (with the possible exception of advanced Buddhist practitioners) everyone hungers for something. Those may or may not be related.

Sometimes that first truth leads you to settle for what’s at hand, the convenient and familiar — for instance, a fast-food sandwich. You probably can count on the thing to conform to some basic standards, to have a calculatedly appealing combination of salt and fat and such, to fill your tummy for awhile. But is it really satisfying?

Val Landrum, Emily Eisele and Gavin Hoffman, taking it to the man. Photo: Owen Carey

Val Landrum, Emily Eisele and Gavin Hoffman, taking it to the man. Photo: Owen Carey

For those who consume theater as sustenance, that sub sandwich has a surprising counterpart in American Hero, the latest production on the boards at the venerable Artists Repertory Theatre. Bess Wohl’s one-act comedy serves up enough basic entertainment value to get you through a brief evening — a handful of skillful performances and a lot of easy laughs tucked into a readily recognizable and digestible form.  But if you’re feeling the need of some nourishing human insight, emotional resonance, trenchant social thinking or refined aesthetic pleasure, you might find yourself uttering some theatergoers version of that old TV-ad lament, “Wow. I could’ve had a V-8!”

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The few and far between

Long-haul trucking, short-haul emotions, millennial paranoia and powerhouse acting drive the action in CoHo's "The Few"

We’re in a trailer at the end of a century. Star-crossed lovers meet again, and mourn among the ruins of what could have been. Here, in this not-quite-contemporary castoff of a place, CoHo Productions and co-producers Val Landrum and Brandon Woolley have brought MacArthur Fellowship and Obie award-winning playwright Samuel D. Hunter’s The Few to the stage.

The trailer is an off-the-cuff irritation of cheap floral print wallpaper, a child’s search for comfort with the long-time fleecing of design. It’s not rare: there’s a whole slate of American aesthetic in the Walmarts, Targets, and Tuesday Mornings that reproduce designs almost ad hoc, but without the energy of the originals. The rub, the real issue, comes down to not having any time. Our great American sage, Benjamin Franklin did not write his Poor Richard’s Almanac without bearing in mind that time and money are always in equal competition. While The Few barely shows the anxiety and paranoia surrounding the end of 1999 with the feared computer collapse of a system we barely understood, it captures the way in which time is fleeting between people. The ’90s was a hyper decade, when analog became digital, and the play asks as an undercurrent: if our historians, cultural, art, history can barely keep up with the new paper trail, what happens with our emotional history? That backwater, the mystery that inflects a meaning into the facts: where do the minutes of our soul confessions go, as time makes its mean parade?

Landrum, Sohigian, O'Connell: the few, the proud, the long haul. Photo: Gary Norman

Landrum, Sohigian, O’Connell: the few, the proud, the long haul. Photo: Gary Norman

The Few features a powerhouse of Portland talent in acting, direction and all of the behind-the-scenes work that makes a play. The plot is simple: an old lover returns, only to find out you can never go home.

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