Picture a stage full of Sideshow Bob-style rakes sitting all over the floor. And just like that intrepid clown from The Simpsons, who steps on the teeth of one rake after another and slaps himself in the head with the handle, the characters in Between Riverside and Crazy keep stepping on their own stories, and the lies and half-truths buried in those stories come back to haunt them.
This is the devilish scenario that playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis has devised, and this Pulitzer Prize winner makes for a compelling couple of hours. The excellent Cleveland Play House cast invests the proceedings with plenty of wry characterizations to bring out the humor in this rather seedy narrative.
We are in a capacious, rent-controlled apartment on Riverside Drive in New York City, handsomely designed by Wilson Chin. It is owned by Walter Washington, an African-American retired cop whose wife recently died. To fill that gap in his life, he is populating his rooms with other people, including his son Junior, Junior's fiancee Lulu, and Oswaldo who is Junior's pal. The three younger people all call Walter "Pops" or "Dad," and he seems pleased enough with that role.
Not that anything pleases curmudgeonly Walter for long, or very deeply. Heck, he even hates his dog. Although he can walk, he often uses a wheelchair to move about his flat, nursing some injuries from a shooting incident a few years before when a white officer put six slugs into Walter after an N-word confrontation. Ever since, Walter has been trying to get a satisfactory settlement from the police department, but every time he receives an offer he turns it down.
Meanwhile Junior is fencing stolen electronics from one of the apartment's bedrooms, and Oswaldo is doing his best to hang onto his free room and board while trying to reconnect with his real father. As for Lulu (a playfully vexing Zoë Sophia Garcia), she claims she is pregnant and a college student. But her activities, like those of all the other characters, seem a bit suspicious.
Walter is not all that happy with any of these folks, saying at one point to his son: "Hurry up and become a man so I can break a hip and drop dead in peace." He also questions Lulu's IQ, but he seems to have a soft spot for the quirky Oswaldo, who seems to exist on a quaint diet of almonds, baloney and Ring-Dings.
Even when a couple cops visit to share some drinks with Walt, all is not as it seems. Lt. Dave Caro seems a hail fellow well met, as he shares Walter's booze and glories in the old man's reminiscences. And Dave's fiancee Audrey, who is a detective and was Walter's former partner, serves as wingman on this visit. But once Dave casually mentions the civil suit Walter has filed against the city, other motives come to the fore.
It isn't until Walter has a new injury and is visited by a Church Lady that the play slides into an even more distorted and mystical realm. This scene combines religious ritual and carnal passion in a way that has rarely been done, or done so well. A small hint: It's baptism by booze and communion via a French kiss, and a whole lot more.
Guirgis has created a fascinating hall of fun house mirrors, and the cast handles all the reflections with sure-handed professionalism under the direction of Robert Barry Fleming. As Walter, Larry Marshall's gruff and cantankerous persona launches many of the playwright's laugh lines. And when this poker player finally plays his trump card and finds some surprising redemption at the end, it feels well earned. Ken Robinson is strong and believable as Junior, convincingly portraying a man who has spent more than a couple years in the slammer.
Playing the betrothed cops who visit Walt, Michael Russotto and Danielle Skraastad hit just the right notes of chummy playfulness early on, which nicely sets up their later scene when all pretense is unmasked. The same is true of Dominic Colón as Oswaldo, turning this seemingly goofy and inoffensive houseguest into something entirely different later on.
But perhaps the most interesting character is the Church Lady, as played by Yvette Ganier. It's hard to game out exactly who she is, as she initially comes on to Walter with a standard religious pitch that soon turns exotic and then balls-out crazy. Is it really happening? And is the final scene between her and Walter a final moment of much-needed truth?
That is for you to decide. Although the play sags a bit in the second act, it asks interesting questions ranging from the mystery of father-son relationships to the con games we all play on each other —and ourselves. Are we all hustlers at heart, or is there a core of goodness we must seek to reveal? Feel free to take those questions home and discuss.