Crazy about Guirgis’ Riverside at ACT

Walter “Pops” Washington (Carl Lumbly, left) argues with his son, Junior (Samuel Ray Gates, right), while Oswaldo (Lakin Valdez, center) reads the newspaper in Stephen Adly Guirgis’ Pulitzer Prize–winning comedy, Between Riverside and Crazy, at American Conservatory Theater. Below: Lieutenant Caro (Gabriel Marin) chats with Lulu (Elia Monte-Brown). Photos by Kevin Berne

There’s a crackling vitality on stage the Geary Theater as American Conservatory Theater opens its 49th season with Stephen Adly Guirgis’ Between Riverside and Crazy. The play is this year’s Pulitzer Prize winner, which doesn’t necessarily guarantee it will be an interesting play, but if you’ve seen any of Guirgis’ previous work – produced locally by San Francisco Playhouse and Custom Made Theatre Company – you know that this is a muscular, compassionate and deeply interesting writer.

If Riverside isn’t as gritty as some of his other work, it more than makes up for that with its fresh approach to the classic American dream-type play. This is Guirgis leaning heavily into Miller and O’Neill territory and staking his claim as a great chronicler of the contemporary American family and the state of that elusive but collectively held dream.

Between Riverside and Crazy is a surprising play in that it deals head on with powerful emotion – between father and son, connected co-workers, lost young man and surrogate father figure – and doesn’t flinch. There are teases of melodrama but then swift left turns that add suspense and keep the edges sharp. And there’s a whole lot of humor, dark humor that elicits satisfying and frequent laughter.

Director Irene Lewis navigates the barbs and the jokes and the shadows expertly with the help of a superb cast that knows exactly how to scale what is essentially a living room drama for the grand space of the Geary. The set by Christopher Barreca adds a touch of cinematic fluidity as the entire apartment set (hints of former Riverside Drive grandeur remain) slides back and forth to signal scene changes to the building’s roof and back again.


Powering a whole lot of the play’s electric charge is Carl Lumbly as Walter Washington, a former New York City cop who caught a “bad break” years ago in an off-duty incident that may or may not have been racially motivated and left Walter with six bullet holes and an ongoing lawsuit against the city.

Walter is a heavy drinker – the play begins at breakfast and he’s already into his cups – with a lot weighing on him. He lost his wife after a long illness about a year prior, and his grown son, Junior (Samuel Ray Gates) has moved back home with his girlfriend, Lulu (Elia Monte-Brown). Walter is also providing shelter for one of Junior’s wayward felon friends, Oswaldo (Lakin Valdez), as he works through his newfound sobriety.

Lumbly’s Walter is cantankerous and acerbic, funny and lively even as he bemoans his fate. He shows true compassion for Oswaldo, and the two of them, as different as they are in age and experience, share a real chemistry. That spark turns out to be one of many. We see it between Lulu and just about everybody she deals with and after a dinner party attended by Walter’s former partner, Audrey (Stacy Ross) and her fiancé, Lt. Dave Caro (Gabriel Marin). And then there’s the Church Lady. Walter receives regular visits from the Church Lady, but he gets a surprise when a new lady shows up, a Brazilian spiritualist played by the always extraordinary Catherine Castellanos, who makes a decidedly non-church-like impact on Walter.

There’s all kinds of tension and affection coursing through this two-hour and 15-minute drama/comedy. So many of the details feel right out of the news: white cop shoots unarmed black man, family threatened with eviction from rent-controlled apartment. But the heart of the play is all about race and power, interesting topics to explore among cops and felons, and the drama comes less from headlines and more from the details and ongoing challenges of everyday life.

There’s a whole lot of game playing going on here, within the family unit and within the larger system. The players here are pretty smart and experienced, and watching them make their moves is the source of abundant pleasure.

This cast is, to put it mildly, beyond belief. Under Lewis’ direction, their performances are perfectly calibrated and able to veer between comedy and drama with aplomb.

Lumbly and Marin are veterans of Guirgis’ work as produced by SF Playhouse. Both actors were in the 2013 production of The Motherfucker with the Hat (read my review here) and in 2007’s Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train (review here). Marin was also in the Playhouse’s 2006 production of Our Lady of 121st Street. So to say these actors have a familiarity and comfort level with Guirgis’ work is an understatement, and boy does it work to the advantage of Riverside. Their interactions are pointed and tricky and full of intensity and humor.

Valdez as Oswaldo doesn’t get much stage time, but he makes the most of it. Oswaldo is a troubled young man, but a sensitive one, and he emerges as a character you love immediately and want to know more about. As Lulu, Monte-Brown turns what could be a sexpot role into something more complex and interesting. She’s a game player, just like all the others, and claiming her slice of the power pie.

Ross and Castellanos, two of our best local actors, shine as women at very different points in their lives, and Gates as Junior really comes to the fore in a touching scene with Walter as the two men, in their contentious ways, try to express what they mean to each other.

Guirgis has a tremendous ear for dialogue that feels real but better than real. Through his lens, the drama and comedy of life is heightened, and Between Riverside and Crazy feels at times desperate, real and sad and other times hilarious and hopeful.

Stephen Adly Guirgis’ Between Riverside and Crazy continues through Sept. 27 at American Conservatory Theater’s Geary Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $20-$100. Call 415-749-2228 or visit

ACT’s Metaphor: a bright balloon that pops

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George Hampe is former military sniper Dean Trusk and Anthony Fusco is Oliver Denny, a military employment counselor in the world premiere of George F. Walker’s Dead Metaphor, an American Conservatory Theater production. Below: Sharon Lockwood (left) as Frannie Trusk, Fusco and René Augesen as Helen Denny make the best of an awkward church encounter. Photos by Kevin Berne.

It seems there are two plays battling it out in American Conservatory Theater’s world premiere of Dead Metaphor by Canadian plawyright George F. Walker. Three of the characters are broadly comic – one foot in the real world, the other in a dark comedy of extremes. And the other three characters are just plain folks, getting by as best they can with anger, fear and desperation causing storms on a daily basis.

Both of those plays are pretty interesting, at least in Act 1. The comedy is especially biting as the three exaggerations – a politician running for reelection (the marvelous René Augesen getting to show of a real flair for biting comedy), her increasingly agitated husband (a grimly funny Anthony FuscoTom Bloom) acting erratically because of fatal tumor bearing down on his brain.

These three characters are able to wallow in the comedy extremes because the other three characters keep them grounded. Dean (George Hampe) is a military sniper returned from war in the Middle East. He’s been looking for gainful employment for months but with no luck. He’s about to re-marry his ex-wife (Rebekah Brockman), not because she’s pregnant but because she only divorced him while he was deployed because she couldn’t stomach the thought of being a military widow. And Dean’s mom (Sharon Lockwood doing wonders in a mostly thankless role) is suffering through her husband’s brain tumor-inspired dementia.

In the set-up, Walker’s play, under the keen direction of Irene Lewis, crackles with humor and potential. Whenever Augesen or Fusco is on stage, laughs are guaranteed as we get to know Helen Denny, Augesen’s unscrupulous, immoral candidate, and Fusco’s Oliver, a sensitive, intelligent man increasingly terrified by the monster his wife has become.

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When Dean goes to see Oliver about getting him a job, worlds collide and Dean ends up working as an assistant to Helen, much to the chagrin of Dean’s father, who, even in his addled state, can work up a full steam of hate directed toward conveniently conservative, opportunistic Helen and all the brain-dead politicos she represents. (“I’d like to fuck your corpse, you sinister whore,” is one piercing insult lobbed at Helen, and she absorbs it with astonishing aplomb.)

Act 2 starts to misfire as the satirical comedy and the real world begin to make uneasy intersections, and then, by the end, the whole play has self-destructed. It’s easy to feel compassion for Dean, who, as embodied by Hampe, is a well-adjusted young man who has been expertly trained for military murder but who can’t catch a break in real life. Potential employers tend to get jittery when they find out he was an effective sniper. Walker makes his point about the world our veterans face upon their return, but by the end, he has clouded that message and not taken Dean (or his ex-wife) into believable emotional terrain (even for a bleak comedy). Walker demonstrates some sharp shooting comedy then misses his target entirely.

Walker’s cop-out conclusion is just the last wrong turn of many in a act that expects us to make leaps involving plot and emotion that simply aren’t earned. So it’s a good thing these actors are so solid and the production itself is so slick (the dual turntables of Christopher Barreca’s prove incredibly effective). Otherwise, you might be tempted to say Dead Metaphor is dead not on arrival but on conclusion.

[bonus interview]
I talked to playwright George F. Walker for a story in the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the interview here.

George F. Walker’s Dead Metaphor continues through March 24 at ACT’s Geary Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $20-$95. Call 415-749-2228 or visit

David Mamet stages a Race to obfuscation

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The cast of American Conservatory Theater’s Race includes (from left) Anthony Fusco, Susan Heyward, Chris Butler and Kevin O’Rourke. Below: Law partners Lawson (Fusco) and Brown (Butler) square off over a tendentious case. Photos by Kevin Berne

David Mamet never fails to fog me up.

He’s never been one of my favorite playwrights because, although he’s a wizard of compelling dialogue and unquestionable intelligence, his view of the world is just too bleak for me. Finding kindness and compassion and spirituality in his work is never as easy as finding brutality, ugliness and the absolute worst in mankind. I’m not saying he’s wrong in his assessment, it’s just that he makes me feel like Pollyanna in comparison. I don’t need a steady stream of sunshine, flowers and unicorns.

Mamet’s Race is making its West Coast debut in a compelling production from American Conservatory Theater. Director Irene Lewis isn’t messing around, and her quartet of actors attack this too intentionally provocative drama with real courage. They struggle (and partly succeed) to add a needed human dimension to Mamet’s button-pushing editorial cartoon about what he sees as the farce known as the law, the complicated impossibility of human relationships and the insoluble problem of race.

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He gives us a law firm headed by a black partner (Chris Butler as Henry Brown) and a white partner (Anthony Fusco as Jack Lawson). Also in their inner circle is a black junior lawyer (Suysan Heyward as Susan, the only female character and the only one without a last name), and they’re all struggling with a potential client. Billionaire Charles Strickland (Kevin O’Rourke), who is white, has been accused of raping a black woman (possibly a prostitute).

“What can you say to a black man on the subject of race?” one character asks. “Nothing.” But Mamet finds plenty to say, and none of it’s good. Humanity is fueled by coffee and gossip, and the law is fueled by three things: hatred, fear and envy. All of that’s true, but there’s so much more. Not in this 85-minute exercise, however.

Mamet’s language is as sharp as ever, and the actors all attack it with gusto, but it’s all just so much talk without any emotional connection to these people. Mamet is most successful at creating some sense of mystery about whether Strickland is guilty or not and how the trio of lawyers goes about determining whether or not to take his case, and if they did, whether or not it’s winnable.

But then Mamet starts throwing his know-it-all punches. Everyone is smarter than everyone else, and everyone’s playing everyone else in one way or another. There’s no such thing as generosity here or genuine feeling because, in Mamet’s world, that’s all grist for the reality of vendettas and ill will and a shared history that damages rather than strengthens.

Race is fun to watch, mostly because the actors – Fusco and Butler in particular – are so adept at making the Mamet-speak seem so real. But this nonstop parade of ugliness (not to mention the high-powered foul language that Mamet seems to relish bombing the stage with) ends up feeling like a skit designed to amuse already cynical lawyers at a national conference for reveling in hideous humanity.

I didn’t feel as beaten up here as I did at the end of Mamet’s Oleanna, and the lack of compelling emotion made Race easier to shrug off, even if the issues it addresses linger long after the curtain calls. Maybe Mamet is right, and we shouldn’t even bother trying to communicate or trying to sort through our problems or are deeply held issues with one another.

I don’t agree with that, so I guess Mamet can go fog himself.


David Mamet’s Race continues through Nov. 13 at American Conservatory Theater, 415 Geary St, San Francisco. Tickets are $10-$85. Call 415-749-2228 or vsit