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.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
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 www.act-sf.org.