Broadway plays dealing with black life tend to stick to what you might call a New York Times view of the world. Some lean into campy, even maudlin, downtown-style cabaret (Jordan Cooper’s Ain’t No Mo, Michael R. Jackson’s A Strange Loop), while others feature airy conceptualism (Antoinette Chinonye Nwandu’s Pass Over, Keenan Scott II’s Thoughts of A Colored Man, Jeremy O. Harris’s Slave Play). Stephen Adly Guirgis’s Between Riverside and Crazy (at the Helen Hayes Theatre through February 19) is, by stark and refreshing contrast, a play throbbing with tabloid energy: punchy, funny, cynical, hardheaded, and gritty. We might as well be sitting in the kitchen with real working-class New Yorkers and their follies and feuds.
The longtime New York Post court reporter Mike Pearl used to assert that the defining ethos of the Times was that “Everything is very, very complicated.” That Timesian understanding of systems paradoxically leads to absurdly simplistic characterizations in which street criminals are hapless victims of society and white women who call the police when they feel endangered are the true menace. Wall Street is bad but shoplifters are misunderstood.
Between Riverside and Crazy, reversing Timesian energy, features intriguingly complex characters who fit into a straightforward understanding of what motivates people: everyone is playing an angle, everyone is trying to get ahead. Guirgis paints a New York that pulses with scams, payback, and contempt, and at its best Riverside is like being in the wry company of a seen-it-all tabloid hack throwing down a lot of whiskeys and getting more acerbic and hilarious with every glass. Alas, Guirgis loses his way in a contrived second act that, in pursuit of a tidy ending, gets there via implausible and sentimental paths.
Guirgis isn’t black (he’s half-Egyptian), but he writes frankly about people of color as flawed individuals rather than types who are meant to symbolize this or that issue. He won the Pulitzer Prize for this work after it debuted off-Broadway in 2014, a scenario difficult to imagine just a few years later, when racial self-flagellation has become the chief obsession of the theater world and plays about black people by nonblack writers can be dicey propositions.
The black veteran character actor Stephen McKinley Henderson, who seems not to be trying at all, is nonetheless perfectly attuned to his role as the grizzled, foul-mouthed, and insult-spewing ex-cop Walter “Pops” Washington, who lives with his ex-con son Junior (played too unassumingly by the rapper and actor Common) and two people who are not his children but fondly call him “Dad”—Junior’s girlfriend Lulu (Rosal Colón) and his pal and fellow criminal, Oswaldo (Victor Almanzar). Pops uses a wheelchair (although he can walk when he wants to) because when he was a policeman he was shot six times by another cop in a case of mistaken identity, many years before the play takes place in 2014. (He insists his white assailant used the N-word, which even in the Nineties was in exceedingly rare usage by white people in New York.)
Pops is both a big-hearted patriarch—he rejects Oswaldo’s not very sincere offer to pay rent in the rent-controlled Riverside Drive apartment in which the four principals live, and he is kindly toward Lulu despite frequently and accurately observing that she’s a moron—and a bitter crank. In a neverending lawsuit, he seeks $5 million from the city for his suffering; the city insists on a nondisclosure agreement and a much smaller settlement. No progress is being made on either side, but Pops doesn’t seem much to care; the principle to which he is clinging is sheer pigheadedness. Now that his wife is dead, he is content to spend whatever time remains for him (probably not much, given his obesity, his age, and his habits) drinking the days away and hanging around his messy but gigantic flat, which is worth ten times what he pays for it ($1,500 a month). Junior thinks Pops chose a shoddy law firm in the mistaken belief that its counselors must be smart because they’re Jews—exactly the kind of rude (but believable) remark that lesser playwrights don’t dare write, or would never think of in the first place because they’re unfamiliar with how blue-collar New York actually thinks.
What puts the play in motion is a visit from Pops’s much younger ex-partner Audry (Elizabeth Canavan) and her boyfriend Dave Caro (Michael Rispoli), a former patrolman who has risen to lieutenant and works a desk job. Lt. Dave urges Walter to take the deal that’s on offer and introduces some threats by way of inducement: he says the city is prepared to evict Pops & Co. from their extremely underpriced apartment—antiquated but never-repealed New York rent regulations intended for returning vets in the post-war era have left a number of such highly prized super-bargains that are passed on down the generations—for various violations of his lease such as smoking marijuana and throwing bottles out of the window. Moreover, Dave notes that he could easily find cause to criminally charge one, two, or possibly all three of the younger people living with Pops. Junior, for instance, is conducting a fencing operation right there in his bedroom, and Lulu, Dave says, is “a pro.”
It’s all part of the rich New York stew of anger, animosity, and disputation. Though Dave (a white man) is the antagonist here, he makes some valid points, such as when he informs Pops that not everything is about race. And though Audry likes and admires Pops, she points out that it was a series of bad choices that put him in the path of those bullets. He was drinking at an after-hours club that was off-limits to cops at 6 a.m. when the altercation began, and the other cop had no reason to think he was a fellow patrolman. If you want a city of angels, look elsewhere. In Guirgis’s eyes, everybody is looking for a way to best the next guy, and race is just one more form of leverage.
Unfortunately, Guirgis writes himself into a corner at the end of Act I, when we are presented with the possibility that Pops might be murdered. Since the play would be over if that happened, it doesn’t. When Act II begins, Guirgis doesn’t have much left to say. When a church lady (Liza Colón-Zayas)—ostensibly visiting for some Catholic proselytizing but actually a kind of mystic and healer—enters the scene, the play loses its streetsmarts and becomes unsatisfyingly fanciful. Some playwrights disdain structure; Guirgis tries too hard for a beautiful resolution. He whips up both a highly implausible resolution to the lawsuit and a drippy romantic/sexual subplot. It’s all far too cute, not to mention a betrayal of the first act’s vinegary blast. The echt New Yorker can only respond with a disdainful, “Gedouddahere.”