BWW Reviews: Stephen McKinley Henderson Displays Pathos and Power in BETWEEN RIVERSIDE AND CRAZY
Playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis' knack for crackling, streetwise dialogue and tension-packed drama that glides seamlessly from gripping conflict to realistic hilarity is in fierce evidence in the Atlantic Theatre Company's premiere production of Between Riverside and Crazy.
Veteran character man Stephen McKinley Henderson, primarily known to New York audiences for his memorable supporting turns, takes on the central role in director Austin Pendleton's deeply engaging production and delivers a powerful, pathos-filled portrayal of a noble but flawed man who may have taken his fight for justice too far.
Set designer Walt Spangler effectively uses a turntable to display the multiple rooms where Walter "Pops" Washington (Henderson) and his son, Junior (Ray Anthony Thomas), live in a spacious old high-ceiling Manhattan apartment. As a long-time tenant in the rent-stabilized building, Walter is paying far below market value and the owner would love an excuse to get rid of him.
A former NYPD officer, Walter was forced to retire after being shot several times by a rookie cop in an incident he claims to be racially motivated. His wounds left him unable to perform sexually for the last years of his wife's life, a point he's particularly sensitive about, and he refuses to accept any of the settlements proposed to quietly end his law suit against the city.
Wearing a long bathrobe and sitting in his wife's wheelchair, Henderson looks regal as Walter enjoys his morning ritual of breakfast and conversation with Junior's buddy, Oswaldo (Victor Almanzar), an ex-con with a history of drug use who is staying with them while he straightens himself out. Also staying with them is Junior's air-headed girlfriend, Lulu (Rosal Colon), who has ambitions to make something of herself.
The first act's climax comes in a sharply-written scene where Walter is visited by his former partner Audry (Elizabeth Canavan), who considers him as such a parental figure in her life that she wants him to walk her down the aisle on her wedding day. But it turns out that her fiancé Dave (Michael Rispoli) is a police lieutenant with a lot to gain if he can convince Walter to take a settlement. When he refuses, bringing up his experiences with racism within the force, Dave brings up information about Junior that could threaten Walter's lease. It's the kind of discomforting scene, perfectly acted, that provides legitimate edge-of-your-seat human drama.
The first act concludes with a shocking climax, but the play has its second act stumbles where tone is inconsistent and believability is tested, especially in a scene where Walter entertains an attractive church lady (Liza Colón-Zayas).
But despite some unanswered questions late in the game that leaves the audience hanging just a bit too much, Guirgis' crisp rhythmic language and Pendleton's tight ensemble make Between Riverside and Crazy an exceptional night out.