Even on the rare occasions when they’re legible, the notes I take in the theater are generally useless — except in those cases where boredom causes them to mutate into to-do lists. I make no apology; there are plays to which a perfectly reasonable critical response may be “wash delicates” or “order Netflix.” In fact, it’s a lack of notes that’s most telling. After Between Riverside and Crazy last night, I checked my Gold Fibre Antique Ivory pad and found that once I’d gotten past my pre-show ritual of describing the set (an excellent revolving Upper West Side apartment by Walt Spangler), I’d written … nothing. As soon as the first scene began, I was gone: lost in its world.
If this effect is not the sum of a playwright’s job, it is no small achievement, either. Stephen Adly Guirgis has mastered it. For one thing, he chooses the right kind of worlds to write about: parallel to, but in many ways hidden from, our own, strange enough to fascinate yet recognizable enough to hit home. As depicted in previous works including Our Lady of 121st Street, Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train, The Little Flower of East Orange, and The Motherfucker With the Hat, these worlds are usually liminal, filled with strivers straddling the fault lines of class and race, drugs and recovery, faith and its opposite. And though Between Riverside and Crazy (not his best title) engages the same forces, it does so through a new kind of protagonist: one who appears, at least at first, to have stopped caring. For Walter Washington, a retired cop, his wife’s death seemed to put an end to any pretense of self-preservation. His “palatial” $1,500-a-month apartment (which, were it not for rent control, would fetch ten times as much) has — in some cases literally — gone to pot. Not only does the Christmas tree still droop in a corner six months later, but he has turned the spare bedrooms over to a motley collection of fuck-ups and ne’er-do-wells who all call him Dad, even though just one is his child. The opening scene, over a breakfast of tea laced with booze, quickly and hilariously folds these lost souls into the emotional batter. Walter’s son, Junior, is a petty criminal planning to reform. Junior’s girlfriend, Lulu, is a possible prostitute said to be studying accounting. (“She a nice girl,” Walter warns Junior, “but she don’t study no accounting. Her lips move when she read the horoscope.”) And Junior’s friend Oswaldo is 90 days sober with Narcotics Anonymous, but not fated to make it to 100.
The play is completely compelling even before its primary dramatic gears start turning at dinner that night. Walter’s former partner — a much younger woman — has come to introduce her fiancé, a self-consciously smooth lieutenant on his way up. But their real goal is to get Walter to agree to a settlement with the city for the shooting that ended his career eight years earlier. As Walter steadfastly refuses for reasons that at first sound unimpeachably noble but that eventually become more troubling, Guirgis opens up a new line of inquiry into the nature of personality: its fierceness, its mutability, its origin in stories that may or may not be true.
I don’t want to give any more away; I’ll just say that there’s many a turn (including a church lady who turns out to be a Brazilian witch, played by the mesmerizing Liza Colón-Zayas) before the play reaches its classical resolution. In truth, some of those turns are so extreme they cause the tone to wobble, especially with a real shocker of a detour into magic realism. In lesser hands, this sort of thing would be fatal to the audience’s willingness to maintain engagement, but Guirgis has playwriting nerves of steel. Language, too: the dialogue is always emotionally specific and accurate to the character, even as it makes the most profane and hilarious leaps. No one sounds alike. Not the lieutenant (“Personally, I would love to be able to agree with you completely. Because if not for the fact that you happen to be totally wrong, you’d probably be right. And I mean that.”) or Lulu (“I may look how I look — but that don’t mean I am how I look!”) or Walter himself (“Goodnight, God bless — take the goddamn dog and get the fuck out.”). In making sure this bedrock of the play’s strength is never compromised, the cast, under Austin Pendleton’s direction, is pretty much faultless. In particular, Stephen McKinley Henderson, as Walter, makes a brilliant commitment to his character’s crotchets that’s almost enough to justify his decades of service in small, priceless, often unheralded character roles.
Playgoers sometimes complain when there’s no one to like in a play, and it’s true that having a likable hero makes it easier to suspend disbelief. That’s why playwrights overuse them. What Guirgus does here, and in most of his plays, is quite a bit more difficult. He doesn’t depend on one character to represent a moral center, or to deliver the theme, or even to engage the audience’s affection. He depends on life itself to do that, faithfully reconstructed and filled with characters who are often enough severely compromised, whose moral centers are at best aspirational, and who only at rare moments recognize themes among the morass of details that make up their existence. In Between Riverside and Crazy, the theme is announced obscurely by that witch: “You are always free.” She means that at any time, a person has choices to make that may reshape his character. For all the sadness and dysfunction in Guirgis’s plays, he nevertheless seems to extend that hope — to his characters in their various prisons, but also his audience in theirs. The results literally speak for themselves, galvanizing but not importunate. You could cry (I did), but you are always free simply to laugh instead.
Between Riverside and Crazy is at the Atlantic Theater Company through August 16.