BWW Review: L. Peter Callender is Stunning in Stephen Adly Guirgis' Pulitzer Prize Winning BETWEEN RIVERSIDE & CRAZY at American Stage
American Stage has been having a sensational year thus far. With the exception of the questionable Strait of Gibraltar, their work in 2018 has been stunning: A powerful Raisin in the Sun, the fascinating and oddly moving Marjorie Prime, the outrageous fun in the park with The Producers, the fabulous Bad Jews, and their newest addition, and perhaps the best of them all, the Tampa Bay area premiere of Stephen Adly Guirnis' BETWEEN RIVERSIDE & CRAZY. That's quite a strong ten months of theatre, and right now, they are the local go-to place for exciting, cutting edge shows. You have to travel a bit south (to Sarasota) to find a theater that has had such an artistically successful year as American Stage has enjoyed.
The Pulitzer Prize-winning BETWEEN RIVERSIDE & CRAZY is breathtaking. Literally. I actually had to catch my breath twice during it. This is a marvelous script, funny and heartbreaking, featuring great ensemble work from the cast but also spotlighting one of the single finest performances of the year (and right now, the way I see it, it's the best performance I've been honored to experience on local stages in many, many months and maybe even years).
L. Peter Callender plays the retired NYC cop, Walter "Pops" Washington. His rent-controlled apartment has been going to seed ever since his wife died, and a motley set of misfits, including his recently jailed son, stay with him. He likes having them there. Walter has never been the same since he was shot by a white officer eight years earlier under very fishy and racially-charged circumstances, and he has spent years muddied in a discrimination suit against the police department. He was an okay cop at one time, but now he's an old man drifting without reason, drinking heavily first thing in the morning, impotent, his life without direction or purpose since the death of his wife (and maybe even before then).
This show lives and breathes with whatever actor is graced with the part of Pops, and Callender, known in our area for directing some of the strongest recent shows at American Stage (Jitney, Joe Turner's Come and Gone and A Raisin in the Sun), gives a performance of a lifetime. This is the stuff of legend. Any actor or would-be actor who is reading this sentence right now needs to get off his or her duff, get on the phone and get tickets for BETWEEN RIVERSIDE & CRAZY now.
After Act 1, the man sitting two seats away turned to me, and said, "Wow, that's incredible acting!" But with Callender, it's more than mere acting; it's actual being onstage. Heartbreaking, real, full of pain and love, caring and loss, pride and defeat, anger and grace. His deep, raspy, commanding voice, and his withered body, as if the world was weighted on top of his shoulders, combine to create one of the more fascinating characters of modern drama. They're Guirgis' words, but Callender brings them to life like few others can. It's a towering portrayal of a man wounded by life, by the passing of his wife who, he claims, "was my superior in every area...with the notable exception of the kitchen."
And the rest of the cast is quite strong as well, each one having their Big Moment, their Big Scene (but it doesn't seem as obvious or as forced as it sounds). Enoch King, who was supremely powerful in A Raisin in the Sun, has the rather thankless role of Pops' son, Junior. He's hard to warm up to, purposely, so very distant especially early on. But there is a moment in Act 2 where he gets to melt some of the ice, and it's as tear-inducing as the play gets. As Lulu, Junior's girlfriend who reminds me of Rosie Perez meets Bridget Fonda (in Jackie Brown), Vanessa Rendon always wears revealing outfits where she shows off her navel whenever possible. She's so much fun, sometimes with major attitude, but she also exudes a certain loveliness as well, a difficult balancing act; I love how none of Guirgis' characters can be pigeon-holed. Her scenes on the roof, sharing a joint with Pops, were beautifully rendered.
Donovan Waldo as Oswaldo, a recovering addict who breakfasts with Pops, has some very strong moments. And one instance with Waldo, at the end of Act 1, made me pop out of my chair as if the breath had been knocked out of me. Even the meaty, but quasi-villainous roles, Pops' ex-partner and her fiancé (played strongly and actually likably, as far as that goes, by Vicki Daighnault and Ricky Wayne), have their own instances to shine. We understand them, even when we wince at some of their actions and demands.
The hilarious and touching Sara Oliva as the Church Lady gets the most memorable scene of the show and maybe even of the year in local theatre, with a communion sequence that kept the audience in constant stitches. (It reminded me of the song "Baptize Me" from The Book of Mormon, only even more overt and laugh-yourself-silly.)
The cast is thrilling to watch, but make no mistake, it's Callender's show.
Benjamin T. Ismail once again flexes his directorial muscles and has helmed an absolutely gorgeous show, perfectly paced. (His sound design was also spot-on and appropriate; his song choices, including works by the Chi-Lites and Bruno Mars, couldn't be better.) Jerid Fox has done a magnificent job as production designer; the turntable set of the revolving (and devolving) NYC apartment is a winner. Even Fox's props are extraordinarily specific, including the dog toys, dog bowl and tiny sleep towel that litter the stage (a dog figures greatly in the play). Ryan E. Finzelber's lighting is evocative without getting in the way; we really feel like we are in a New York City apartment in its downward spiral into disarray. (Pops' wife died around Christmas, and much later, he still doesn't have the heart to take down the Christmas tree.)
Obviously major parental guidance is suggested for this particular production due to the various sexual situations and the barrage of curse words (lots of f-words abound, which is no surprise to anyone who has seen Guirgis' previous works, including The Motherf**ker with the Hat). But this type of language must be there; it's hard to imagine Pops without an expletive, or two, or twenty. It's part of the music of Guirgis' words, and they never sounded more essential than here.
My favorite theme in any work, whether it's a book, a movie or a play, has always been redemption, and "grace" is my all-time favorite word. Both of them figure prominently in this brilliantly realized play--which, if you still haven't grasped quite yet, you would be crazy to miss.
BETWEEN RIVERSIDE & CRAZY plays at American Stage until November 4th.