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'Between Riverside and Crazy' - Richly Packed, Satisfying Theater

Stephen McKinley Henderson and Elizabeth Canavan in Between Riverside and Crazy
(©Kevin Thomas Garcia)

There are marvelous theatrical riches in Stephen Adly Guirgis' darkly comic new play Between Riverside and Crazy, which opened last night at Atlantic Theater Company's Linda Gross Theater on 20th Street. In fact, there might be a few too many splendid things in this densely packed show, and yet, by the time the production, carefully directed by Austin Pendleton has reached its conclusion, there's little doubt that "Riverside" is one of the most energizing plays to come around in a while.

Chief among the show's assets is Stephen McKinley Henderson, a regular face on New York stages, but an actor who has generally been seen in supporting roles. In "Riverside," he is center stage for almost the entirety of the show, playing Walter "Pops" Washington, a retired cop who's living out his golden years in a rent-controlled apartment that has seen better days. In Henderson's capable hands and painstakingly crafted performance, Washington becomes the benevolent dictator of this prime piece of Manhattan real estate.

As the play opens, and Walter has breakfast (and a few drinks) with Oswaldo (sweetly and menacingly played by Victor Almanzar), the recovering addict who's a friend of his son's and now living in the apartment, Henderson's performance brims with grandfatherly warmth. Just moments later, though, Washington eviscerates his son Junior (the understated Ray Anthony Thomas), cruelly and coldly saying "Hurry up and become a fuckin’ man already, son -- so I can break a hip and drop dead in peace."

Henderson's ability to navigate Washington's mercurial nature makes many of the twists and turns that are part of the man's story absolutely natural, and by extension painful. Guirgis has conceived an exceptionally conflicted and contradictory character, and it's a role that Henderson brings to life with tremendous agility.

Not only is Henderson's work matched by Almanzar and Thomas, but also by Michael Rispoli and Elizabeth Canavan, who both play current members of the NYPD and a couple engaged to be married. She was Washington's former partner on the beat, who's moved on to less demanding work. Her fiancé is an aggressively ambitious member of the force, willing to do almost anything to further his career. What impresses most about these performers' work is the intricate chemistry they share. There's never any doubt that these are two people who love one another. At the same time, there's no question that they have and will continue to share a friction-filled union. Further, as with Henderson, they navigate the twists and turns of Guirgis' script as both officers attempt to convince Washington to settle a case against the city about the shooting which was the reason for his retirement.

Guirgis' naturalistic drama takes a sudden detour into the realm of magic realism in the second act with the arrival of a character known only as "Church Lady" (forcefully and movingly played by Liza Colón-Zayas), and though the stylistic change startles, this character's presence in the play sets the stage for one part the unexpected conclusion that Guirgis' play finally reaches. Less successful is the resolution that the playwright finds for one other guest in Washington's home, Junior's girlfriend Lulu. As played by Rosal Colón, this character is an always-intriguing, chipper and vapid spitfire, but nothing in Colón's performance or the script prepares audiences for the one last surprise Guirgis injects into the play.

The dualities of Guirgis' script are expertly echoed in the production's physical production. Walt Spangler's scenic design terrifically telescopes three rooms of Washington's home, allowing theatergoers to sense its former glory all the while making its derelict present palpable. And both Keith Parham's lighting design and Ryan Rumery's original music and sound design strike similar dichotomous balances. Parham's work can be both realistic and cunningly abstract while Rumery creates a soundscape that exceptionally blends music with atmospheric noises like blaring sirens.

These visual and aural bounties combine with meticulously conceived performances and Guirgis' always pungent language and storytelling beautifully, and though I have quibbles about where the play's final moments, the journey to that point proves to be consistently invigorating and satisfying.

---- Andy Propst

Between Riverside and Crazy plays at the Atlantic Theater Company's Linda Gross Theater (336 West 20th Street). For more information and tickets, visit: atlantictheater.org.