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

Yo, Mofo! SF Playhouse tips a mighty fine Hat

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Jackie (Gabriel Marin, far left) and Cousin Julio (Rudy Guerrero, left) visit sponsor Ralph D. (Carl Lumbly, right) and his wife Victoria (Margo Hall, center) to discuss suspected misdeeds in the San Francisco Playhouse production of Stephen Adly Guirgis’ The Motherfucker with the Hat. Below: Marin’s Jackie fends off angry girlfriend Veronica, played by Isabelle Ortega. Photos by Jessica Palopoli

[warning: this review does not hide or disguise the word “motherfucker” in the title of the play at hand]

The comedy, the intensity and all that rough language keeps things skittering right along in the San Francisco Playhouse production of The Motherfucker with the Hat by Stephen Adly Guirgis. The play is this rush of plot and character and language, then the sadness and despair lands. It takes Lionel Richie and the Commodores to underscore it, but man oh man is it there.

In so many ways, Gurigis’ Hat is about growing up, about taking yourself and the world you live in seriously enough to find purpose and pursue it with as much discipline as you can muster. The grown-ups in the play, let it be said, don’t do such a good job on the discipline part, although most of them have (or find) some degree of purpose.

This is the fourth time the Playhouse has tacked a Guirgis play, and it’s easy to see the attraction to the hefty, funny, complicated worlds that Guirgis creates. Compared to previous shows such as Our Lady of 121st Street and Jesus Hopped the A Train, The Motherfucker isn’t quite as gritty or as dark, but it’s still a substantial work about lives (and lies) in transition.

The main character, Jackie (Gabriel Marin) is fresh out of a 24-month stint in prison for getting caught dealing drugs out of the apartment he shares with his on-and-off girlfriend since the eighth grade, Veronica (Isabelle Ortega). When we meet Jackie, he’s as excited as a puppy getting adopted. He has his sobriety, he has his love and he has a new job. Life is good for Jackie…until it isn’t, and all those things he thought he had require re-evaluation.

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Jackie turns to his Alcoholics Anonymous sponsor, Ralph D. (Carl Lumbly) for solace and guidance, and though the older man appears to be the soul of compassion and grounded intelligence, he’s not quite what he seems. Curiously, though we learn many unsavory things about Ralph and he’s a liar, he really does turn out to be a pretty good sponsor. He’s got a lot of life experience, which results in a fair amount of common sense (if not outright morality). When he says he loves his cranky wife, Victoria (Margo Hall), we believe him, in spite of evidence to the contrary. And when we think Victoria might just be unlovable, we discover a smart, passionate woman with a unique perspective on the truth.

Guirgis is a writer capable of surprising his audience, and that’s a welcome trait here. Probably the most delightful character in the play is Cousin Julio (Rudy Guerrero), who, like Victoria, is a truth teller. But flamboyant Julio has flair and charm and, surprisingly, a wife. He’s a muscle man who likes to cook empanadas on his balcony grill, and when he channels his inner Van Damme, the result is funny but also impressive. Maybe one day Guirgis will write a play all about Cousin Julio.

Director Bill English made a smart choice in set designers by hiring himself to create two New York apartments, one grungy, one pristine, set against a backdrop of brownstones and Cousin Julio’s plant-laden balcony high above it all. Now that the Playhouse is settled into its fantastic new space, the sky is clearly the limit in terms of set design.

English gets some superb performances from his cast, most notably from Lumbly as an AA warrior with a unique perspective on life and love, Hall as a knowing, frustrated wife and Guerrero as the unflappable Cousin Julio. Marin and Ortega also have stellar moments, but as the combustible couple at the center of the story, the one struggling with addiction and adultery, there’s something missing. They both create endearing characters, even at their most obnoxious, duplicitous and self-deluding, but they don’t seem to belong together – and the play seems to want us to think they do.

The play boasts some satisfying laughs and an engaging, “what could possibly happen next” sense of storytelling. But this is a serious piece, though it’s less rooted in the head than it is in the heart. Being a grown-up, even one who makes the right choices and still takes advantage of people, is posited as a better alternative to the freefall of addiction and perpetually indulgent, childish behavior. It’s’ not a terribly hopeful message, but it’s one that’s hard to argue.

[bonus interview]
I talked to playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis for a story in the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the interview here.

Stephen Adly Guirgis’ The Motherfucker with the Hat continues through March 16 at the San Francisco Playhouse. Tickets are $30-$100. Call 415-677-9596 or visit

Life is hell for Jerry Springer and Judas Iscariot

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Timitio Artusio as Treymont (front) and Jordan Best as Zandra, both guests on “The Jerry Springer Show” in Jerry Springer the Opera at the Victoria Theatre. Photo by Ben Krantz Studio

Below: Brandy Leggett is Mother Teresa and Ben Ortega is a prosecuting attorney in The Last Days of Judas Iscariot at the Gough Street Playhouse. Photo by Jamie Buschbaum

There are some wonderfully theatrical theological discussions going on around town these days.

At the Victoria Theatre in the Mission, outlandish talk show host Jerry Springer is facilitating a conflict resolution session between Satan and Jesus in Ray of Light Theatre’s Jerry Springer the Opera.

And the Custom Made Theatre Company is delving deep into notions of Judeo-Christian forgiveness and despair in Stephen Adly Guirgis’ The Last Days of Judas Iscariot. Satan and Jesus make appearances in this show, too.

Jerry Springer is a mammoth undertaking for Ray of Light, and the results are pretty spectacular. I don’t love the show, which whisks us from the set of The Jerry Springer Show to the bowels of hell, but I admire the way it lends operatic grandeur to lives we too casually condemn as trailer trash.

M. Graham Smith’s production features a cast of more than 40 plus an eight-piece band, and the music, especially the choral blasts, is the best part of this nearly three-hour blast of foul language, bad behavior and humorously serious reflections on the worst (and marginally best) of human nature.

Music Director Ben Prince has accomplished some magnificent things with his singers and band – even when the show gets repetitive, the score by Richard Thomas (music and lyrics) and Stewart Lee (book and lyrics) is always interesting. You don’t exactly go out humming any of the melodies, but the blend of opera and show tune is mighty appealing.

For all of its shock (and schlock) value, Jerry Springer the Opera really is trying to jolt us into the realization that we’re all on this sinking ship together, and if we go down throwing chairs at each other and infecting everyone with our filth, we can’t fall into the drink quickly enough. But hey, at least we go down singing.

In place of glorious choral music, The Last Days of Judas Iscariot is filled with a wondrous wash of words. This play is a whole lot of talk – nearly three hours’ worth – mostly because Guirgis utilizes the crusty old narrative tool of a trial.

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The setting is purgatory – here a city very much like New York – and the trial concerns the fate of Judas, who has been condemned to eternal damnation for his betrayal of Jesus. The audience sits in jury boxes on three sides of the stage in the newly reconfigured Gough Street Playhouse (formerly The Next Stage).

Unfortunately, we the jury don’t get to vote on whether the prosecution (Ben Ortega as the unctuous El-Fayoumy) has made a convincing argument that Judas got what he deserved or whether the defense (Edith Reiner as the Irish/Gypsy Cunningham) has proved that Judas was part of a larger plan, that others acted more harshly than he did or that his attempt to recant makes his offense less damning.

Custom Made’s artistic director, Brian Katz, orchestrates this sprawling play with aplomb. He also appears an Everyman whose moving monologue attempts to link Judas’ actions with our contemporary lives.

This is actually a play masquerading as a bible study class for those of us with limited knowledge of the bible and its key players. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Guirgis is an entertaining writer who is able to engage and inform. He adheres to the trial structure but breaks out with scenes involving, for instance, a streetwise Saint Monica (Corrine Elizabeth Proctor), a Mary Magdaelne (Amelia Avila) bent on setting the record straight and a childhood friend of Judas’ (Perry Aliado as Matthias of Galilee).

Lewis Campbell
plays both the trial judge (a Confederate deserter) and Caiaphas and does well with both, especially the latter, the man often blamed for Jesus’ death. But the show is stolen, at least for a few minutes, by Brandy Leggett as a wily Mother Teresa.

I must admit to a low tolerance for biblical tales, but Guirgis held my interest for most of the play. He made me care about Judas (played with intensity by Kristoffer Barrera) and question what he represents in our culture. If Stephen Adly Guirgis were going to teach bible study class regularly, I might actually show up.


Ray of Light Theatre’s Jerry Springer the Opera continues through October 16 at the Victoria Theatre, 2961 16th St., San Francisco. Tickets are $25-$36. Visit for information.

Custom Made Theatre Company’s The Last Days of Judas Iscariot continues through Oct. 30 at the Gough Street Playhouse,1620 Gough St., (at Bush Street), San Francisco. Tickets are $20-$30. Visit for information.

Duct tape and yuks: holding comedy hostage

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Above photo: Ashkon Davaran (left) and Casey Jackson in Den of Thieves at SF Playhouse. Photo by Jessica Palopoli. Photo below: Tommy A. Gomez and Lucinda Serrano in Sunsets and Margaritas, a TheatreWorks production at the Lucie Stern Theatre in Palo Alto. Photo by Mark Kitaoka

How strange it is to see two wildly different comedies at two different theaters and find they have something in common: plot twists that involve the restraining of characters by tying them down with duct tape.

Since when did that become an element of slapstick? Has someone alerted Abbott and Costello?

At the SF Playhouse, more than half the cast spends the second act bound to chairs with duct tape and plastic wrap (with extra cling, no doubt) in Stephen Adley Guirgis’ Den of Thieves. And down in Palo Alto at the Lucie Stern Theatre, the TheatreWorks production of Sunsets and Margaritas by José Cruz González also hauls out the sturdy gray multi-use tape to restrain a major character. One more instance of this and we’d have ourselves a trend (apparently a trend only requires a trio of appearances).

Perhaps the Guirgis use of severe restraint should be less surprising, given the writer’s time on the writing staffs of shows like The Sopranos and NYPD Blue. In his comedy (one of his earlier, slighter efforts that lacks the heft of later shows like Our Lady of 121st Street or Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train), desperate characters, none of whom are terribly bright, embark on a too-easy-to be-true heist and end up paying for their lack of proper research.

Director Susi Damilano grounds the comedy in realism, and she’s helped immensely by Bill English’s superb set, which turns a grimy New York apartment into a sinister disco basement during an impressive Act 2 scene change. The stage looks like the real world, and that makes the characters seem truer and more recognizable. That helps the comedy a lot and gives this Sopranos-lite script a greater sense of fun and comic adventure.

Damilano also gets some delicious performances from her cast. Casey Jackson is superb as Paul a young man who never met an addiction or obsession he couldn’t conquer through a handy 12-step program. Such groups receive a hearty amount of ridicule here, but there’s also an underlying respect for the powerful potential for change these programs can offer. As the adopted son of a Jewish family, Paul has a family legacy in the form a grandfather who worked as a skilled safe cracker with a group known as the Den of Thieves. The Den would pull heists then give all the money to local charities. Paul thinks he can do the same when he gets mixed up with a small-time hood named Flaco.

Flaco (an astute, very funny Chad Deverman) is a wannabe Latino gang-banger who hatches the easy-peezy scheme that goes awry. He’s still pining for his ex, Maggie (Kathryn Tkel), who’s working through her own pick-pocketing, kleptomania, compulsive over-eating issues. But being a ladies’ man, Flaco isn’t letting his broken heart get in the way of dating a stripper named Boochie (Corinne Proctor tickles every conceivable laugh from this familiar role). The comedy ramps up a few notches with the arrival of Ashkon Davaran as Little Tuna, a mobster with what appears to be a fully functioning human heart. His cohorts, Sal (Peter Ruoco) and Big Tuna (Joe Madero), are straight from gangland central casting.

Things get really interesting in Act 2 when the comedy gives way to actual drama, and the characters begin showing a little depth. Duct-taped and plastic-wrapped to their chairs, the would-be criminals are forced to decide amongst themselves which of them should be sacrificed as a mob hit. This is where we see the more soulful and searing Guirgis of the later plays, and Damilano and her actors do a terrific job hijacking the comedy by inserting from heartfelt drama. Den of Thieves steals plenty of laughs but cracks the safe only to find drama in the vault.

Sunsests and Margaritas

Down at TheatreWorks’ Sunsets and Margaritas, the duct tape comes in handy when a wily older gentleman becomes too much for his family to handle. On the anniversary of his wife’s death and facing possible imprisonment in a senior home, Candelario Serrano has chosen to lose his mind. After crashing his car through the wall of his restaurant and terrorizing the town with a gun (and with glimpses of him in his boxer shots), Candy has been captured by his son, daughter-in-law and grandchildren and taped to a dolly.

It would certainly be easier to wheel the old man into the home while he’s taped up, but playwright González isn’t after heavy drama or even light drama. He’s after laughs, and that’s mostly what he gets in this affable comedy that feels mere inches away from being a weekly half-hour installment on Fox. Working with director Amy Gonzalez (no relation), he and a likeable cast do a sort of Latino version of Neil Simon. Instead of neurotic New Yorkers we get a middle-age son dealing with his much-macho father, his kids (a clothing designer son in a souped-up electric wheelchair and a lesbian Republican daughter) and his world-weary but loving wife.

Tommy A. Gomez as Gregorio, the son, keeps doing the equivalent of smacking his forehead and muttering, “Ay, dios mio!” by breathing into a paper bag and hallucinating that he’s seeing the Virgin of Guadalupe (a very funny and frisky Lucinda Serrano).

Just how the familial farce ends up with grandpa bound in duct tape is somewhat mysterious. But you know, there’s a lesson here. When life spins out of control, reach for the duct tape.

In comedy, apparently, nothing captures attention more than characters restrained by duct tape. It’s practically a trend. You heard it here first, folks.


SF Playhouse’s Den of Thieves continues through April 17 at 533 Sutter St., San Francisco. Tickets are $40. Call 415 677-9596 or visit

TheatreWorks’ Sunsets and Margaritas continues through April 4 at the Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto. Tickets are $24-$62. Call 650 463-1960 or visit

The force & Kiki

Here’s some interesting local theater news — some high-powered casting, a Skywalker-y night out and, be still my heart, the return of Kiki & Herb:

Carl Lumbly, last seen on TV’s “Alias,” heads the cast of Jesus Hopped the `A’ Train, the next show at SF Playhouse. Other cast members include Susi Damilano, Daveed Diggs, Joe Madero and Gabriel Marin. Bill English directs the Stephen Adly Guirgis drama, which begins previews Feb. 28 and opens March 3. Call (415) 677-9596 or visit

In other exciting news, at long last, Canadian actor Charles Ross brings his hit solo show, One-Man Star Wars Trilogy, to San Francisco’s Post Street Theatre for 14 performances only, Feb. 27 through March 11.

Since he first performed the show five years ago, Ross has been in demand for what critics have called “effortlessly energetic…he nails the tiny details that fans obsess over.” As the title indicates, Ross takes a brisk, nonstop shot through the first three Star Wars movies, the result of too much of his childhood, Ross says, spent in “a galaxy far, far away.”

Ross does all the character voices, recreates the special effects, sings the music, fights both sides of the light saber battles and, of course, kisses the princess, er, his sister, er, the princess.
Tickets are $37 and go on sale Sunday. Call (415) 771-6900 or visit

And finally, fans of the truly bizarre (in the best possible way) will be happy to know that Kiki and Herb are returning to the city that gave them birth.

Yes, Justin Bond (Kiki) and Kenny Mellman (Herb) return to San Francisco, where they first started singing in 1989, with Kiki & Herb: Alive on Broadway.

As the title suggests, this is the show the duo performed on Broadway last summer, and it opens July 13 at the American Conservatory Theater and runs through July 29.
Kiki and Herb haven’t been in the Bay Area since a triumphant New Year’s Eve appearance when 2005 turned into 2006, so we’re all ready for the duo’s _ how shall we say? _ unique version of songs ranging from The Cure to Public Enemy to Dan Fogleberg. Tickets are $20 to $60. Call (415) 749-2228 or go to

And now, enjoy some Kiki love: