stephen adly guirgis

“Between Riverside and Crazy” is yet Another Reason to Love Stephen Adly Gurigis

I have the hugest playwriting crush on Stephen Adly Guirgis. Back when I was writing under the pseudonym “critickate,” I wrote a post detailing all the reasons why I love his plays. Despite my admiration for his work, I had never seen one of his plays live.

Until now.

Atlantic Theater Company’s production of Guirgis’ new play Between Riverside and Crazy is now playing at the Linda Gross Theater, and I got to hear Guirgis’ dialogue on stage for the first time.

And I loved every second of it.

Between Riverside and Crazy has your standard Guirgis elements: New York City setting? Check. Diverse cast of characters? Double check. Shady goings on? You know it. Dramatic moments punctuated by diaphragm-ruining comedy? Oh, yes.

Its focus is Walter “Pops” Washington (Stephen McKinley Henderson), a disabled ex-cop whose years-long lawsuit against the NYPD is endangering his rent-stabilized apartment on Riverside Drive. He shares said apartment with his son Junior (Ray Anthony Thomas), a middle-aged manchild who is illegally selling electronics out of his room; Lulu (Rosal Colón), Junior’s not-so-bright girlfriend; and Oswaldo (Victor Almanzar), Junior’s friend who is a recovering addict and needs a place to stay. As Walter interacts with his crazy housemates, his NYPD colleagues, and a meddling church lady, he tries to trade in his troubled past and present for a brighter future.

Between Riverside and Crazy has many strengths. One is its cast, led by the brilliant Stephen McKinley Henderson. Walter’s character is not an easy one to play. He’s hugely imperfect, and at times, downright reprehensible. But Henderson plays the role with such nuance, humor, and joy that watching his performance is in itself a masterclass in acting. The rest of the cast also provide solid performances, from Victor Almanzar’s sincere Oswaldo to Rosal Colón’s delightfully air-headed Lulu (a far cry from her sharp character in last summer’s Basilica). Liza Colón-Zayas has a unforgettable turn as Church Lady, a character who doesn’t appear until the second act… but when she does, Walter is changed forever.

Another strength is the play’s gorgeous set, designed by Walt Spangler. If you’ve been missing the revolving stage from Lincoln Center’s Act One, it has taken an Off-Broadway turn in this production, showcasing every room in Walter’s apartment in exquisite detail. The plot of the play, too, has its share of surprises. The end of the play’s first act is so explosive, it had audiences bursting into applause at the performance I attended.

Unfortunately, my love is not blind. The second half, as many plays tend to do, doesn’t pack the same dramatic punch of the first half. But that is my only qualm with Between Riverside and Crazy, which is a fine addition to Stephen Adly Gurigis’ body of work. I can’t wait to see the next set of characters he’ll commit to paper, and who will bring them to the stage.

6 Reasons Why I Love Stephen Adly Guirgis

Over the hurricane break, I caught up on my reading. And as the oncoming storm threatened to take over the city, I officially finished the entirety of Stephen Adly Guirgis’ published plays.

He is beyond awesome. Here’s why:

1) He is a master of the English language. His prose is exciting, raw, and poetic. His dialogue is a perfect blend of the beautiful and obscene. Want to see it in action? Read Boochie’s monologue in Den of Thieves.

2) The Last Days of Judas Iscariot.

3) Oh, you wanted me to elaborate? Okay, this play is one of my favorites. Ever. Last Days imagines that Judas’ case of betrayal is finally put to trial, with Sigmund Freud, Mother Teresa, and many other witnesses–biblical and otherwise–testifying and appearing in flashbacks. Last Days is the ultimate dramatization of justice. Judas’ final scene with a certain savior is so poignant it hurts. Andrew Lloyd Webber, read ’em and weep.

4) Guirgis reinvigorates life into the contemporary American play. You won’t find too many overwrought scenes taking place in living rooms in his plays. Guirgis places his characters in motels, funeral homes, basements, bars, correctional facilities, hospitals, and the afterlife (and there are a few living rooms, too). He creates fully realized worlds and isn’t afraid to populate his plays with larger casts of characters. Guirgis’ delicate balance of tragicomedy makes him able to tell a story with brilliant humor and heartbreaking depth. When you’re in a Guirgis play, there is never a dull moment.

5) His New York is for the natives, a refreshing take from all the white twenty-something newcomer to the city narratives. From the displaced-by-Disney Times Square denizens of In Arabia, We’d All Be Kings to the grieving, fractured Harlem community in Our Lady of 121st Street to the Bronx hospital workers in The Little Flower of East Orange, Guirgis’ diverse cast of characters occupy a very real, very special part of New York City.

6) Speaking of diverse, Guirgis is not afraid of protecting the integrity of his plays–even when it’s controversial. When a certain theatre not far from New York City cast young white twenty-somethings to play Puerto Rican thirty-somethings in a seemingly case of cronyism in one of Guirgis’ plays, Guirgis responded on his Facebook page with “headshaking anger.” In an author’s note to the Dramatists Play Service edition of The Motherf@*ker With The Hat, Guirgis wrote,

“This play and all my plays have the best chance to come to life fully when they are cast as MULTI-ETHNICALLY as possible… please strive to cast the play overall in a manner that reflects the beautiful melting pot that is New York City and the setting of this play. And all that being said, the play is now yours, and these characters authentically belong to whoever has the heart and emotional generosity to claim them.”

Guirgis not only sheds light on a very troubling aspect of contemporary theatre, but offers hope for the future. And it’s f@*king amazing.

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