Stephen Adly Guirgis is such a quintessentially New York playwright, it’s incredible how popular his plays are outside the city limits. You have to wonder what those out-of-towners will make of “Between Riverside and Crazy,” the scribe’s latest love/hate song to this impossible town and its outlandish citizenry. Some might be baffled by the rancorous real-estate battles between landlords and tenants of Gotham’s rent-controlled apartments. But everyone’s bound to be captivated by Guirgis’s loudmouthed locals and the terrific ensemble players, led by Stephen McKinley Henderson, who bring them to roaring life in Austin Pendleton’s affectionately helmed production.
Everybody around here knows Henderson. He’s a go-to stage and film character actor, most recently seen on Broadway in the revival of “A Raisin in the Sun” with Denzel Washington. But he’s also a familiar, not to say a beloved, fixture in plays by August Wilson, scoring a Tony nomination for best supporting actor in the 2010 revival of “Fences.”
Here, he’s the top banana, reveling in the role of his career as Walter “Pops” Washington, a cantankerous ex-cop who holds the lease on a prime piece of real estate on the Upper West Side — a spacious, two-bedroom rent-controlled apartment on classy Riverside Drive, overlooking the Hudson River. Although Walt Spangler’s elaborate revolving set of this prized property is too top-heavy for the play (be grateful that no one actually uses the bathroom), that overindulgence is forgivable because the apartment is the unbilled star of the play.
People would kill for a place like this; indeed, Pops’ landlord seems to be trying to hustle him off to his maker, especially now that his wife has died. His son, Junior (Ray Anthony Thomas), urges his old man to respond to all the eviction notices he keeps getting. And his former partner, Detective Audrey O’Connor (Elizabeth Canavan), and her fiancé, Lieutenant Dave Caro (Michael Rispoli), have advised him that he’s getting a good deal.
But no matter how much the landlord sweetens the pot, or how strongly Pops’ friends advise him to take the big payout, the old man is determined to stay in his home, which has become a refuge for the hard-luck orphans who have become his surrogate family.
Austin Pendleton has always been an actor’s director, and he comes through here with a taut production and a dream ensemble to play Guirgis’s colorful and quirky characters. Some thesps, including Henderson, come from the LAByrinth Theater, where Guirgis found his voice as one of the artistic directors. If anyone can handle the scribe’s idiom — a warm, rich dialect that comes right off the city streets — these are the guys.
“Why she call me Dad all the time?” Pops grumps about one of his visitors who never leave; in this case it’s his son’s girlfriend, a sexy little number wonderfully named Lulu (Rosal Colon). “I ain’t her dad.” But the person he complains to, a cleaned-up addict named Oswaldo (Victor Almanzar), reasonably reminds him that, “You ain’t my dad, either, but I still call you Dad.”
Like it or not, everybody loves Pops. So does Henderson, who plays him with all the contradictions of someone you know, or wish you knew. He can be sweet and sad and kind and cruel and mean and nasty and pigheaded and aggravating and heartbreaking and funny as hell. None of this is beyond Henderson; the amazing thing is, he manages to convey all these messy human emotions in the same scene — often in the same breath.
The only person who doesn’t love Pops is Pops, who rages with self-destructive anger over past grievances. His wrath is mainly focused on the gunshot injury that cost him his job. To hear him tell it, it also cost him his manhood, a situation that is hilariously dealt with by Liza Colon-Zayas, playing the Church Lady who is praying him through this affliction.
Pops is also furious at the way the police department handled his disability compensation at the time of the shooting. But that anger keeps him from seeing that the sense of injustice he’s been carrying around all these years has turned him into a bitter man. Insofar as there’s a theme and a moral to this story, it’s how Pops and all his orphans earn their way to forgiveness and redemption.