Speakeasy Stage Company is in top form as it kicks off its season with a superb production of the New England premiere of the 2015 Pulitzer Prize-winning play BETWEEN RIVERSIDE AND CRAZY. Written by Stephen Adly Guirgis and billed as a “dark urban comedy,” the play plunges us into the murky water where most human beings swim, somewhere between saintly and sinful, flawed and lovable as they navigate the tricky terrain of modern life. This superb ensemble fully inhabits every nook and cranny of these instantly recognizable, deeply human, “beautifully broken” characters.
The descriptor belongs to director Tiffany Nichole Greene, and her insight guides the production with great humanity and humor. We are grabbed from the first conversation at breakfast over bourbon in an old, rent-controlled Manhattan apartment where Walter “Pops” Washington (Tyrees Allen) a widowed and wounded ex-cop heads up a household of additional walking wounded. They include Pops’s paroled son “Junior” (Stewart Evan Smith) who has just the right size chip on his shoulder, which masks an ache for his dad’s affection; Junior’s girlfriend Lulu (a very funny Octavia Chavez-Richmond who gives a surefooted, lulu of a performance); and Junior’s endearingly vulnerable friend and recovering addict Oswaldo (a tender and tough Alejandro Simoes).
All of them need a dad, even “Pops,” and Tyrees Allen is monumental in the role as a proud, ornery guy whose bluntness makes him funny and lovable — but don’t push him too far; he’s also a conflicted man who holds his feelings close. He has been waging a battle against the police force for years, refusing to settle for what he deems a meager payout after being shot by a white cop after hours in a bar. Instantly we are in the throws of a slew of dysfunctional paternalistic institutions and relationships that touch on systemic racism, political corruption, and damaged father/son relationships. Lewis D. Wheeler and Maureen Keiller as former colleagues do a great job here skirting the line between decency and ambition.
Enter the scene stealer, “Church Lady” played by the consistently marvelous Celeste Oliva. She’s just what the doctor didn’t order. I was dumbstruck as she set about ministering to Pops in what one could call an unholy last communion. This might prove to be my favorite scene in a local production all season.
This production works on every level, physical, emotional, and psychological. Sets, costumes, lighting, performances, pacing– all are so natural that being in the audience is like spying on actual people who don’t know they’re being watched. We are seeing a rich slice of juicy life, but all the way down past skin and bone to heart and soul. The play is terrifying and funny, sad and crazy. These are just folks struggling in an everyday way with fundamental human issues, the need to be loved, accepted, and respected. The dialogue, real and revelatory lets us in because it rings absolutely true. These characters wear their hearts on their sleeves one minute and lash out the next. They often have flashes of insight: at one point the scantily-clad Lulu says, “I may look how I look, but that don’t mean I AM how I look.”
The insight, hilarious and spot on, is mirrored by a poignant insight of Pops’s near the end of the play, when he talks about his own father and how that relationship affected how Walter Washington lived his own life. The play offers a satisfying, empathic way forward, and we leave chastened by the fragility of human beings, and invigorated by their– our– resilience. MUST SEE “Between Riverside and Crazy” at SpeakEasy Stage at the BCA’s Calerwood Pavilion through October 13!