Hurry Up and Become a Fuckin’ Man

I once saw Stephen Adly Guirgis speak at the 92Y, with Tony Kushner moderating a discussion on Arthur Miller.  He prefaced his praise for Mr. Kushner (“I don’t mean to suck your dick or anything…”) by noting that he was missing a Rangers playoff game to be there, which is a good indication of the tone of his work: he is equally comfortable discussing Death of a Salesman as he is watching sports.  I’d like to avoid calling him a “poet of the gutter,” since the phrase is hackneyed, elitist, and in this case inaccurate, but he is a poet whose language is made up of unpoetic words.  In many ways, in fact, he is the heir of Miller, and in Between Riverside and Crazy he chronicles the disappearing Upper West Side of Latinos and African-Americans just as Miller did with the partially assimilated Jews of Brooklyn.

Eight years ago, Walter “Pops” Washington (Stephen McKinley Henderson) was shot by a rookie white cop who called him “nigger” while he did it.  As Pops describes it, “He shot everything Black in the whole joint and somehow didn’t hit anything white.”  At the time, Pops was an NYPD officer himself—not to mention a war veteran—and he now finds himself effectively retired in Riverside, an alcoholic, a widower, and nearly a decade into an unsettled lawsuit with the city; he is a biological parent to Junior (Ray Anthony Thomas) and an emotional one to a motley crew of types he may have found himself arresting in the old days and who now call him “dad”: Junior’s girlfriend, Lulu (Rosal Colón), who may be a prostitute, and the ex-convict Oswaldo (Victor Almanzar), who has a newfound commitment to sobriety and wholesome living: “See: the Ring Dings and baloney and Fanta Grape, it turns out, that’s what doctors and People Magazine call ‘Emotional Eating’ on my part,” he tells Pops, “on account of I only ate that shit because those foods made me feel ‘safe and taken care of’ back when I was a kid who was never ‘safe or taken care of.’  But now, I’m a adult, right? So I don’t gotta eat like that no more, and I can take care of myself by getting all fit and diesel like how I’m doing from eating these almonds and making other healthful choices like I been making.”  This relative calm (or, more accurately, stasis) is disturbed when Pops’s ex-partner Detective O’Connor (Elizabeth Canavan) and her careerist fiancé Lieutenant Caro (Michael Rispoli) show up to dinner, pressing him to settle and threatening to kick him out of his rent-stabilized apartment.  His answer?  “Fuck all a y’all. They wanna hang me from a cross—hang me. Ten dollars, ten million dollars—I don’t give a fuck. Just make sure you tell whoever sent you that Walter Washington is a man. They ain’t crucifying some supernatural Jesus!”

Mr. Guirgis has an impeccable ear and it is tempting to spend an entire review quoting his dialogue.  His world is equally informed by Christian struggle (all of his characters strive and at least partially fail to achieve redemption) and the realities of lower- and middle-class living in New York City.  With Oswaldo, in particular, he finds a voice that evokes sympathy as well as laughter; there is a sincerity in his regurgitated magazine and pop culture clichés, an odd articulateness in his inarticulateness that is never patronizing.  But all the characters are gripping, all flawed but all written with tremendous empathy, similar to the kind of cast we usually only see on highly acclaimed, serialized TV dramas like The Sopranos and Mad Men.

Mr. Henderson is electrifying, recalling Burl Ives as Big Daddy in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof: stubborn, abrasive, overwhelmingly obese, but also capable of great understanding.  He spends much of the play sitting in a wheelchair and it is a testament to his performance that there is more force in his stationary body than in those of the actors who scuttle restlessly around his kitchen and bedroom.  Mr. Almanzar, too, is brilliant, his Oswaldo doe-eyed and fixated on unlocking that long forgotten, untaken care of kid who had the potential to be good.  And Mr. Rispoli has the clipped speech and mannerisms of a cop who does want the best but is too old to have the patience to handhold people through the process.

Indeed, everybody is terrific.  Mr. Guirgis, director Austin Pendleton, and their cast have in Between Riverside and Crazy an almost ideal rendering of the well-made play, of the classic American drama.  “There are orphans somewhere,” Pops says at the end of the play—but not here, onstage, where all have been blessed with knowing and compassionate interpreters.

Between Riverside and Crazy runs through August 23rd at the Linda Gross Theater. 336 W. 20th Street New York, NY.  2 hours.  One intermission.

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Aaron Botwick

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