Stephen Adly Guirgis’s Between Riverside and Crazy, written and set in 2014, is the latest of several Pulitzer Prize-winning shows to take the Broadway stage this season. Presented by Second Stage at the Hayes Theater for a limited engagement through February 12, the biting dark comedy – which, in addition to the Pulitzer, received awards for Best New Play from the Outer Critics Circle, New York Drama Critics Circle, Off Broadway Alliance, and Lucille Lortel Awards in 2015, for its Off-Broadway premiere with Atlantic Theater Company – takes an inside look at the conflicts, crimes, and corruption, lies, scams, and motivations of a chosen family of characters revolving around retired Black NYC cop Walter “Pops” Washington, living in a large, desirable, rent-controlled apartment on Riverside Drive on the Upper West Side.
The recently widowed Walter was accidentally shot by a white fellow officer eight years ago and has still not settled his discrimination lawsuit against the Police Department. His son Junior (a dealer in stolen goods) was just paroled from prison, and he, his girlfriend Lulu (a ditzy scantily clad “accounting student”), and friend Oswaldo (a recovering addict with a record, who is estranged from his own father), all call him “Dad” and live with him at the apartment, from which he is under the threat of eviction. His former partner Detective Audrey O’Connor arrives with a huge engagement ring and new fiancé Lieutenant Dave Caro to try to convince him, at the urging of the City, to settle the case so everyone can move on, and a Church Lady also pays an initially unwelcome visit to help him deal with the loss of his wife (and to solicit a large donation).
Under the incisive direction of Austin Pendleton, the cast of seven – most returning from the original Off-Broadway production – embraces the flaws, struggles, and absurdities of both the people and a system that enable, perpetuate, overlook, and reward bad behavior for personal gain, while revealing the twists and turns of their back stories, ulterior motives, and deceptions. In the end, it all comes down to buying into the rampant duplicity and greed so everyone can get what they want, if not what they deserve, in a combination of laugh-out-loud humor and gut-punching desperation, with an underlying recognition of the human need for community, validation, and connection, no matter how damaged.
Starring as the foul-mouthed, stubborn, and acerbic Walter is the terrific Stephen McKinley Henderson, who, despite his crusty surface, displays moments of generosity, caring, and affection for his circle of renegades, along with repressed feelings of loss, regret, and guilt over his questionable past actions and relationship with his late wife, in a fully rounded characterization that makes him equally maddening, laughable, and likable. As Junior, who was his mother’s confidant and, as a result, is often at odds with his father, award-winning artist and activist Common makes a commendable Broadway debut, bringing the son’s deep-seated anger and resentment, and his own need for love – from Walter, the needy and clinging Lulu (played by Rosal Colón, who delivers one of the show’s biggest laughs with her character’s misunderstanding of the word prognosis), and Oswaldo (Victor Almanzar as the relapsed friend he takes back in after an unexpectedly violent episode) – to his believable portrayal.
Rounding out the fine cast is Elizabeth Canavan as Walter’s long-time friend, colleague, and admirer Audrey, who tries to reason with him, then becomes his main adversary after pointing out his own responsibility in the shooting and the unsettled lawsuit; J. Anthony Crane (filling in for Michael Rispoli on the night I attended) as the ambitious and calculating Dave, who has a vested interest in getting Walter to settle; and Maria-Christina Oliveras as the shockingly unholy Church Lady, whose scene of “healing” is enhanced by Keith Parham’s evocative lighting.
The action takes place on a rotating set by Walt Spangler that suggests the scale and value of the premium (but not so well maintained) Riverside Drive apartment, with costumes by Alexis Forte that are indicative of the status and lifestyles of the shady characters, and vocal coaching by Gigi Buffington that captures their street-smart language. If you can’t make it to the theater in person, there will be simulcast performances from January 31-February 12, so you can watch it at home.
Running Time: Approximately two hours and 10 minutes, including an intermission.
Between Riverside and Crazy plays through Sunday, February 12, 2023, at Second Stage, performing at the Hayes Theater, 240 West 44th Street, NYC. For tickets (priced at $69-159, including fees), go online. Masks are required for all Tuesday evening and Wednesday matinee performances; Wednesday-Sunday evening performances are mask optional. Click here to purchase simulcast tickets.