BWW Review: BETWEEN RIVERSIDE AND CRAZY dazzles at 4TH WALL THEATRE
BETWEEN RIVERSIDE AND CRAZY is a Pulitzer Prize winning script by lauded playwright Stephen Adly Guirhis, and this production marks its Houston premiere. It's an urban dark comedy laced with social commentary and revelatory character beats. It's an actor's dream, and so it seems appropriate that 4th WALL THEATRE COMPANY would choose it for their season and intimate space. The production stands out as one of their best, and is well worth checking out between now and early April. It's a small house that seats under 250 patrons, and so it is carrying on despite the impulse to shutter down events with crowds. That's lucky for those of us brave enough to head out there to witness it.
The play is about a retired and disabled black cop who lives in a rent-controlled apartment in the very desirable Riverside area of New York City named Walter "Pops" Washington. He was shot by another white officer, and the implications are that it was racially motivated. He is suing the NYPD in a long drawn out court battle. Meanwhile his son, his son's best friend, and his son's girlfriend all live with him. His wife has been gone for eight years, and they are there to keep him company and be taken care of by their dad. The trio sharing his space seem to be involved in some not so legal operations, and so they endanger the long standing lease which the city would love to dissolve. His former female partner and her career savvy lieutenant husband show up to encourage him to settle his suit against the department. It's a sneaky ruse Pops sees right through. Before all of this is resolved there is a very intriguing visit from a church lady, and lots of tensions bubble up to the surface.
This tricky character-driven piece requires an amazing cast, and that is just what 4th WALL THEATRE COMPANY has managed to assemble. Byron Jacquet plays Pops, and he carries the story ably on broad shoulders. Every moment of his performance has a world weary marinade that rings true. He is asked to do all of the heavy lifting as the plot shifts around him, and he's up to the challenge. Watching his work is like getting a master class in acting from one of Houston's best artists.
Joseph "Joe P." Palmore plays his son Junior, and he's a proven talent who appeared in 4th WALL's recent production of THE GLASS MENAGERIE. Joe knows how to approach an "angry young man" with grace, and he brings a flair to the role that reminds me a great deal of Terrence Howard. Juan Sebastian Cruz is equally authentic as the tortured Oswaldo, the best friend of the son who is struggling to hold on to his sobriety and new healthier life choices. Briana J. Resa plays Lulu, the girlfriend of Junior, with her trademark wicked humor and ability to go from cute to badass in mere seconds. These three are the colorful New Yorkers who at once seem as charming as they are potentially dangerous throughout.
Real life husband, wife and artistic directors Philip Liel and Kim Tobin-Liel play cops trying to manipulate Pops into dropping his lawsuit. What makes their performances so great is they choose to play the undercurrents of the shifty characters well enough that we never believe a word they say when it comes to the important stuff. The furtive quick side glances between them give us all we need to know about their true motivations.
Oddly enough there is one character who only enters the play in the second act that stands out above all others. It is the Church Lady played by Pamela Vogel and it's a showstopper. She ends up stealing the entire night with a scary and hilarious take on a woman who seems way too passionate about the work of her Lord. It's a surprising and ballsy turn that could have slipped into parody in the hands of anyone other than Vogel who proves she can handle anything thrown at her. It is literally the smallest written role, but one that you won't be able to shake for many days later.
Bill Pruitt directs the actors with a wonderful sense of tone and timing. His staging is nimble, and the scenes flow from one to the next with a fluidity aided by Robert Leslie Meek's incredible sound design. Christina Giannelli's lighting is on target throughout. Ryan McGettigan's scenic design is painfully authentic with it's rundown floors and peeling paint. Adam Noble provides movement direction that helps carry off a crucial scene in the second act. Technically the whole production rivals the best of the best in Houston including The Alley.
You can't go wrong here when you consider you have an amazing script, a stellar cast, and a show produced with technical prowess. BETWEEN RIVERSIDE AND CRAZY is easily the best show running live in Houston right now, and would be even if the larger houses had remained open. It's an amazingly insightful black comedy that takes on our fears of intimacy and how we choose to live our lives with each other. The most remarkable aspect of it are the colorful characters who resonate with a vibrancy you rarely witness in more traditional works.
BETWEEN RIVERSIDE AND CRAZY is projected to run through April 4th at Spring St. Studios. Tickets are available either through their website at www.4thwalltheatreco.com or by calling (832) 767-4991.
Photo by Gabriella Nissen