NY Theater Review By Brian Scott Lipton
Over the past decade, Stephen McKinley Henderson has taken appetizer-sized parts in the work of August Wilson, Lorraine Hansberry and others and turned them into fully satisfying meals. Now, in the exhilarating new play “Between Riverside and Crazy,” at the Atlantic Theater Company, playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis has delivered a three-course meal to Henderson in the guise of ex-cop Walter “Pops” Washington. And the veteran character actor has, in turn, given audiences a buffet to feast on.
When we first see Walter in his spacious, rent-controlled Riverside Drive apartment (evocatively designed by Walt Spangler), he’s exchanging a variety of profanities and non-pleasantries over breakfast with ex-con Oswaldo (a fine Victor Almanzar). They are later joined by Walter’s frustrated son and fellow ex-con Junior (an effective Ray Anthony Thomas) and his seemingly sweet, if dumb-as-a-stick, girlfriend Lulu (a hilarious Rosal Colon), making for an unusual household.
But layer by layer, Guirgis reveals that Walter is more than just your average feisty, eccentric New Yorker eking out his last days shooting the s…t and downing whiskey at 9am. He’s an embittered, alcoholic, mad-at-the-world guy, determined to make the NYPD pay big for being shot by a rookie (white) cop eight years earlier, no matter the costs to anyone or anything else who stands in his way.
That includes his ex-partner Audrey (Elizabeth Canavan), who shows up for dinner with her fiancé, big-shot cop Lieutenant Caro (a superb Michael Rispoli), an alternately tough-and-tender lug whose main job is to get Walter to settle his long-standing beef with the department once and for all.
If there’s any misstep in Guirgis’ piece, or director Austin Pendleton’s otherwise crackerjack production, it’s that we never fully believe the stated dynamic between Walter and Audrey, who claims to think of Walter as her surrogate father and desperately wants him to walk her down the aisle at her wedding to Caro. Henderson and Canavan never fully connect in the way they should for this scenario to fully resonate, and Walter’s later actions against Audrey stretch a little bit of credibility.
The same could also almost be said of a brief yet life-changing encounter between Walter and a visiting woman from the local church early in Act II, but the chemistry between Henderson and the always-fabulous Liza Colon-Zayas is so strong, it overcomes any doubt one might have about what happens in this pivotal scene (and its surprising aftermath).
Indeed, much of the beauty of Guirgis’ play — in addition to his delicious use of the everyday vernacular — is how often it takes curves off the road you might expect it to stay on. And Guirgis could have no better driver than the amazingly brilliant Henderson, who is in full control of every moment and who practically demands that you come along for the ride. Hop on in while you still can!
“Between Riverside and Crazy” is playing at the Atlantic Theater Company’s Linda Gross Theater (336 West 20th Street) now extended through August 23. Order online at atlantictheater.org, or by calling OvationTix at 866-811-4111.
*Photos: Kevin Thomas Garcia