Saturday, 9 August 2014

BETWEEN RIVERSIDE AND CRAZY by Stephen Adley Guirgis at the Atlantic Theatre Company

     The dwindling serious theatre audience goes to plays for something we can't get on television or from film -- a feast of language. Television is good for storytelling, but the dialogue is seldom interesting. American film once gave us crackling dialogue, but those days are long gone. Now we have plays for those who still care about articulacy, wit and poetry. Last night's audience for BETWEEN RIVERSIDE AND CRAZY was up on its feet cheering the verbal music of this fine play as much as the fine performances.
     BETWEEN RIVERSIDE AND CRAZY is a twenty-first century take on American domestic drama. As with many of our classic playwrights, Guirgis's family situation is not what it seems to be. The matriarch died at Christmastime six months ago. The Christmas tree sits forlornly in the corner of the living room, a hollow symbol of family warmth where there hasn't been much. We begin with a breakfast scene. Walter Washington, know to the young denizens of this house as Pops sits in his deceased wife's wheelchair imbibing an alcoholic breakfast. In this Riverside Drive rent controlled apartment with him are his son, Junior, an ex-convict; Junior's young girlfriend Lula; and Junior's ex-con friend Oswaldo, who is a recovering alcoholic and addict. Pops sits imperious and judgmental in his wife's wheelchair as if it were King Lear's throne. His son craves his love but has never experienced it. Oswaldo's father has written him off. But Pops doesn't known how to be the father everyone wants him to be. He hated his own father and, like many troubled men, has tried to be the opposite of the man who  never gave him love.
     Pops was a policeman who was accidentally shot by a white rookie. Pops was drunk on the job, but got early retirement by falsely claiming that the rookie called him a "Nigger." Now his chickens are coming home to roost. He is about to be evicted and the police want him to sign off on on the settlement he has been dickering over for eight years.
     Like the characters in Conor McPherson's brilliant play THE NIGHT ALIVE, which opened the Atlantic's season, BETWEEN RIVERSIDE AND CRAZY is a play about misfits -- alcoholics, addicts prostitutes, petty thieves. The characters try, fail, and try again to gain some control over their lives, to feel love for and from someone and to attain something close to grace in a fallen world. Pops' moment of grace comes from a church lady who tries to offer him communion, but Pops has spurned religion. The communion he finally receives from the church lady is more sexual that spiritual -- or maybe the spiritual can only come through the carnal. "You are free," the church lady who is really a former prostitute and a con artist, says as the old man has simultaneously an orgasm and a heart attack. The moment leads Pops to realize that he can be free. He can become a wandering man like his father and let his grown son find his own way. At the end, we're at breakfast again and the family configuration has both changed and stayed the same.
     Every character in this play has a distinctive voice and his or her own form of poetry. They all want to be understood. Guirgis is one of the best of an exciting crop of contemporary American playwrights -- we're in a kind of dramatic Renaissance even as the audiences age and dwindle. Despite the inherent sadness of his characters, we come to love them and feel hope even in moments of hopelessness. Even some of the most serious moments aren't without humor.
     BETWEEN RIVERSIDE AND CRAZY has received a pitch-perfect production. Stephen McKinley Henderson is a towering patriarch, sometimes physically vulnerable but always exerting power and judgment. Every one else in this ensemble is totally convincing, particularly Victor Almanzar as Oswaldo and Lisa Colon-Zayas as the church lady. Austin Pendleton has directed ably on an impressive revolving stage designed by Walt Spangler. The future of this apartment is at stake and we see all of it.
     If I gave stars, BETWEEN RIVERSIDE AND CRAZY would get at least five.

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