Wednesday, August 03, 2016

'Between Riverside and Crazy' Comes a Considerable Amount of Ambiguity -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Between Riverside and Crazy
a recent play by Stephen Adly Guirgis
Steppenwolf Theatre, Chicago
Thru August 21

I'm somewhat hard-pressed to tell you what Between Riverside and Crazy--the 2015 Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Stephen Adly Guirgis--is precisely about.

But I think that's kind of the point.

Early in the 2-hour, 2-act drama, a scantily-clad, prominently-tattooed young woman named Lulu (well-played by Elena Marisa Flores) says "I may look like I look--but that don't mean I AM how I look."

In her program notes introducing the show, Steppenwolf artistic director Anna Shapiro states that this declaration "captures the spirit of the entire play."

So although in a compelling marketing, topical sound-byte sense, Between Riverside and Crazy offers commentary on police brutality, with its central character, Walter "Pops" Washington (the excellent Eamonn Walker, a veteran film/TV/stage actor now starring in NBC's Chicago Fire) being a black ex-cop who had been shot by a white cop while off-duty in an after-hours bar of ill-repute, that's really more a core element than what the play is fully about.

It's really seems to be about--though far less acutely so--life, family, setbacks, losses, friendship, betrayal and more.

With Walker--who I once saw in Julius Caesar on Broadway alongside Denzel Washington--playing somewhat above his actual age, Pops lives in a spacious rent-controlled apartment on Riverside Drive in Manhattan.

Though obviously still pissed about having been shot 8 years before the play takes place, continuing to seek $5 million in damages through a suit against the NYPD, saddened by more recent passing of his longtime, beloved wife and generally rather cantankerous & curmudgeonly, not only is he also quite funny--with some great lines from Guigis' script--he is clearly more generous of spirit than his dialogue openly bespeaks.

Sharing his apartment are his son, Junior (the always excellent James Vincent Meredith), who has recently been released from prison, Junior's girlfriend Lulu and a friend of Junior's named Oswaldo (Victor Almanzar).

Keeping with the gist of people not being completely what they seem, each of these characters--and the 3 others: Pops' former police partner Audrey (Audrey Francis), another white cop (Tim Hopper) who is also her fiancé and a "Church Lady" (Lily Mojekwu) who comes to provide Pops with comfort of various sorts--has aspects that are admirable and others that are far less so.

I don't wish to give away much of the storyline, but part of it includes the two current cops trying to convince Pops to settle his suit.

So certain financial and legal machinations and motivations are at play, and there is some discussion about what happened in the bar years ago--including a bit of victim blaming but also questions of inexact recollections--but just as important in the stage time are less overt aspects concerning the relationships between Pops and Junior, Audrey, her fiancé, Lulu, Oswaldo, the Church Lady and even unseen lawyers and Pops' late wife.

I very much appreciate that Guirgis represents character types not often seen on posh theatrical stages--as he did in his The Motherf*cker with the the Hat, which I also saw at Steppenwolf.

An African-American ex-cop and his ex-convict son, sharing an apartment with two streetwise Latinos, don't make for common dramatic subjects, and it was interesting to regard the estimable cast terrifically representing "real people," even with major crisis points slow to develop onstage. That the show somewhat reminded me of Sanford & Son probably denotes that not enough everyday people of color are shown doing everyday things in the plays I see.

Particularly for just $20 through Steppenwolf's wonderfully generous "Day-of-Show" discount offer, I'm glad I took the advice of the Tribune's Chris Jones--who was considerably more effusive in praise than I--and made a point of seeing this work.

Between Riverside and Crazy offers perspectives I don't often come across, and is worthwhile for that reason alone, but overall my regard for it is stuck somewhere in the middle.

Perhaps in accurately reflecting the ambiguity of our lives, I just didn't find it pointed nor riveting enough.

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