What happens when your life has been gutted to the point where practically all that remains are your grudges? Between Riverside and Crazy, a play by Stephen Adly Guirgis currently in its Los Angeles premiere at the Fountain Theatre, is a dark comedy that explores serious issues of racism among police officers and the consequences of police shootings. But it is also a thoughtful exploration of family, forgiveness, and deciding what is important when life has not gone the way you imagined.
Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2015, Between Riverside and Crazy tells the story of Walter Washington (Montae Russell), better known as “Pops” by practically everyone he knows, regardless of whether they are related to him by blood. An African American ex-police officer, Walter’s career, and life as he knew it, ended abruptly eight years ago when a white rookie officer shot him 6 times. His lawsuit with the NYPD is still pending because he has declined every settlement offer, but circumstances are quickly growing dire. After the recent death of his wife, Walter is at risk of losing his spacious, rent-controlled apartment on Riverside Drive. The apartment has become a safe haven for Walter’s son, Junior (Matthew Hancock), a parolee who may or may not be staying out of trouble, as well as Junior’s girlfriend, Lulu (Marisol Miranda) and friend Oswaldo (Victor Anthony), a recovering addict.
Walter is facing pressure to settle from his friend and former partner, Audrey (Lesley Fera), who learned from him as a rookie and has always looked up to him. She is now being influenced by her fiancé, Lieutenant Caro (Joshua Bitton), an ambitious member of the force who knows being the one to make Walter’s problematic case finally go away would put him in good standing for future opportunities.
Directed by Guillermo Cienfuegos, this play does a great job of living in Walter’s gray areas, which comprise the majority of his character. There is plenty to dislike about him—he’s cranky, stubborn, and outwardly unaffectionate, never telling his son he loves him. He’s many years deep into severe alcoholism, regularly enjoying multiple drinks before breakfast, and he has done little to prevent the crises he is now facing, having sat by for years as his life deteriorated. He seems to draw great pleasure from being difficult. But at the same time, he finds compassion for his son and his misfit friends, opening his home to them indefinitely with hardly a question, and sometimes you might even catch him snuggling with Lulu’s dog, whom he claims to hate. Russell plays all of this masterfully in a performance that is the highlight of the production. After a strange and life-altering encounter with a woman from church (Liza Fernandez), you see the wheels begin to turn as he finally makes some decisions about the direction the rest of his life, which he practically hopes will be limited, will take. And whether or not you agree with those choices, the story’s ending feels inevitable due to Guirgis’s smart writing that subtly lays all the right groundwork without being obvious.
The script does strong work in the way it chooses to reveal the relationships between the characters, although notably, the women are not quite as three-dimensional. Lulu’s dimwittedness is the butt of many jokes, and Audrey does not have much of a spine at all, quickly siding with her new beau over her mentor of many years, and not saying or doing much to help either side of the argument when things grow heated. As for the woman from church, who is never given a name, she may be the most compelling female here, but it is not the most flattering portrayal of a human being.
It is certainly easy to see why this play has garnered so much attention and acclaim. Police shootings are a hot-button issue, perhaps even more now than in 2015 when it premiered, and Walter is a deeply interesting character, a seemingly reluctant father figure who in actuality savors those relationships. He is desperately trying to cling to what remains of his dignity after a series of events that while unfortunate and sometimes unfair, he was not blameless in. It is the scene with the woman from church that introduces a mysterious element and solidifies this play’s memorability, adding an unexpected layer to an already complicated story. Overall, this production succeeds thanks to the adept performances of its ensemble, led by a tour de force from Russell, who brings the enigmatic Pops to life with impressive complexity.
Between Riverside and Crazy runs at the Fountain Theatre in Hollywood through December 15th. Performances are Fridays at 8pm, Saturdays at 2pm and 8pm, Sundays at 2pm, and Mondays at 8pm. The running time is 2 hours and 30 minutes, including one intermission. Tickets are $40, with pay-what-you-want tickets available for Monday performances, subject to availability. To purchase tickets, click here.