BETWEEN RIVERSIDE AND CRAZY
Written by Stephen Adly Guirgis
Director/Sound Design - Ruben Carrazana
Production Stage Manager - Kaitlin Hatton*
Scenic Design - Bob Lavallee
Lighting Design - Aaron Johansen
Costume Design - Whitney Coulter
Sound Engineer - Jorge Guerra
Props/Set Decor - Lynn Lovett
Fight Choreography - Jeffrey Colangelo
Intimacy Choreography - Danielle Georgiou
Assistant Stage Manager - Flower Avila
Fight Captain - Vanessa DeSilvio*
Intimacy Captain - Merri Brewer**
Pops - Tyrees Allen*
Detective O'Connor - Merri Brewer**
Junior - Irwin E. Daye**
Church Lady - Vanessa DeSilvio*
Lieutenant Caro - Jim Jorgensen*
Oswaldo - Tomas Moquete
Lulu - Hannah Valdovinos**
* Member, Actors Equity Association **Equity Membership Candidate
Reviewed Performance: 8/20/2022
Reviewed by Ann Saucer, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
Stephen Adly Guirgis’ play, Between Riverside and Crazy, won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. After enjoying Stage West’s fantastic production, it is obvious that the Pulitzer Committee awarded wisely.
The setting for this riveting play is an apartment in contemporary New York City. The set and props are composed of painstaking detail. A brick-lined outdoor space features mismatched chairs and take-out container trash. A cluttered eat-in kitchen provides clues that this is not a play about teetotalers. A living room harbors a clearly dead tree sporting Christmas lights and unwrapped presents, along with a smattering of authentic household items, such as an elaborately embroidered pillow and small American stick flags huddled in a pencil holder. A sick room includes a hospital bed, stacks of boxes, vases with dead flowers, framed pictures of white Jesus and Mother Mary holding a heart and hymnal respectively, and blood (or other bodily fluid) stains on the carpeted floor.
The complicated set is a prelude for the characters themselves and their shifting allegiances and desires. Like the characters, the apartment is full of contradictions. The carpet stains and dead plants war with the beautiful chair rail molding. This was once a gorgeous apartment, but the tragedy is in the air.
Tyrees Allen immediately holds court as Pops (aka Walter Washington), who insists on eating, and drinking, his breakfast in his late wife’s wheelchair. Pops is cantankerous, irreverent, and hyper-articulate. Allen is phenomenal, and this play demands a bigger-than-life performance. Pops drives the play much like Willie Loman is the beating heart of Death of a Salesman, or Scrooge is ever-present in Christmas Carol.
Like Loman, Pops’ career is over and the job that defined his life is examined and found wanting. But how much can be blamed on the job, and how much on his own demons? The characters peel away the onion layers on that question.
Pops’ Christmas past was brutal. One illustration of how Guirgis constructs believable family dialogue is that the characters never directly talk about the details of an apparently messy, awful death that occurred during the “holiday season.” The garish Christmas decorations and lingering carpet stains stand silent century. Have some fluffy tinsel bling, and hope the blood comes out of the carpet. The ghost of Pops’ late wife Delores is an overshadowing presence. The play never defines her in her own right. The hole she left behind in connecting her husband and their son, Junior (Irwin E. Daye), is revealed in increments.
Junior makes several references to his late mother in arguments with Pops, and the closest we get to a description of Delores’ last days is the accusation that Pops should have settled his lawsuit with the City in time to pay for a home health nurse. Pops was a police officer, but eight years ago he was shot six times by a white rookie cop. His former partner, Audrey O’Connor (Merri Brewer), and her fiancé Lieutenant Caro (Jim Jorgensen) have an agenda to compel Pops to finally settle with the City, which requires a nondisclosure pledge.
The City’s pressure to force Pops into a settlement extends to using Junior and his friends’ presence in the Riverside apartment as a ginned-up excuse to evict Pops from his spacious, rent-controlled home. Junior is a handsome ex-con who probably is running an illegal electronics resale business out of his bedroom. He moved in his ex-con buddy Oswaldo (Tomas Moquete) and his conspicuously immodest girlfriend Lulu (Hannah Valdovinos).
Oswaldo, adorned with gold chains and eye-popping high tops, is working on a twelve-step program in the wake of his release from prison. He is trying if temporarily, to forgo his usual breakfast of Ring Dings, baloney, and Fanta Grape cola—or as Oswaldo calls it, “emotional eating.” Pops is having none of the Whole Foods advice, predicting that future health food pronouncements will be “ass-backward from what they originally said,” and demanding “the highest sodium possible.” Oswaldo comments on stories in the NY Post and awkwardly if sweetly, expresses his gratitude to Pops. “Guests don’t pay no rent,” Pops reassures him, even after complaining that his son thinks “I am here to keep him in cool whip.”
Beyond Pops’ frequently hilarious quips, I experienced this play as a psychological thriller. Even the story-within-a-story, a seeming shaggy dog reminiscence about Audrey’s first week partnered with Pops on the force, takes a surprising turn. It seems to be about Pops being impervious to blood and violence, but it shows one better about who he really is.
Frequently Guirgis confronts the audience with our mistaken assumptions. Are the white people on Pops’ side? Are they really here to help? Black, white, blue (i.e., police)—are these distinctions ultimately meaningless next to the almighty green?
The play includes both sex and violence, although Pops’ lawsuit with the City is the cohesive driver of the story arc. The edge-of-the-seat intrigue lies in who is sincere, who is lying, who is friend, and who is foe. Moquete and Jorgensen are superb. If either stars in Jekyll and Hyde I’m buying a ticket.
Jorgenson infuses his characters’ lies with great passion. Lt. Caro charms with his Giuliani insults (which, notably, Guirgis wrote in 2014). Lt. Caro tells an astounding lie about his own family, and one of Allen’s great achievements in this role is that he makes it believable that Pops knew it was a lie. Without coming off as forced or artificial, the conversations cleverly expose deeper motivations regarding what the characters are really about.
Pops is capable of great generosity and kindness once he is not being pressured by his son to discuss his late wife or by his former partner to settle with the City. As Pops’ former partner on the force, Audrey O’Connor is at times crawling with discomfort over the conflict between Pops and her fiancé. Brewer does a good job with the conflicted character.
Daye as Junior convincingly carries a heavy dramatic load in scenes with Pops wherein the subject of Delores is raised and then dropped in fits and starts. He also does a good job walking a line of ambiguity in the scenes with this ditzy girlfriend, played delightfully by Valdovinos.
Valdovinos’ LuLu is a comic foil. Her vacuity and immodesty are a chance for Pops to belt out gems like, “full moon rising,” along with observations such as, “the air entered the space between her ears and she forgot” and “teach her a trade; she can’t do nothing but walk around here with her booty hanging out.” LuLu is presumably lying about certain claims she makes, but it is unclear whether the worst accusations about her are accurate.
Vanessa DeSilvio performs a showstopper as the ironically dubbed “Church Lady.” Like Moquete and Jorgensen, her character changes before our eyes. DeSilvio’s character is both calculating and spontaneous, and her execution of this tricky part is awe-inspiring.
The lighting facilitated numerous scene changes, and the sound design allowed for both musical interludes and the background hum of the urban setting. The costumes were fun when they needed to be, particularly LuLu’s and the Church Lady’s.
Stage West is reliably first rate, and the opportunity to see a drama of this caliber should not be missed. There is a realism to this potent work, which leaves many questions unanswered and open for interpretation. I love great acting and I highly recommend Between Riverside and Crazy.
Stage West Theatre
8/18/22 through 9/11/22, Thurs. 7:30; Fri & Sat. 8:00; Sun. 3:00
Jerry Russell Theatre
821 W Vickery Blvd, Fort Worth, TX 76104
For information and Tickets call (817) 784-9378 or go to https://stagewest.org