Stephen Adly Guirgis won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for drama for his darkly comic “Between Riverside and Crazy.” Two years later, as GableStage’s sizzling new production so abundantly demonstrates, the play feels completely of the moment – in part because its characters traffic in “alternative facts.”
Retired New York cop Walter “Pops” Washington (Leo Finnie) refuses to settle an eight-year-old civil lawsuit against the department. Seems a rookie white cop shot and disabled him, hurling the “n” word at him repeatedly, after finding the off-duty Pops drinking in an after-hours bar. Seeking millions in compensation, Pops considers himself a victim. But was he?
Living with him in a sprawling rent-controlled apartment that has seen better days are his son Junior (Marckenson Charles), recently released after a felony stretch at Attica and going straight (or is he?); Junior’s pal Oswaldo (Arturo Rossi), a health food-obsessed ex-con who has finally embraced sobriety (or has he?); and Junior’s girlfriend Lulu (Gladys Ramirez), a pregnant City College student (but is she?).
Even the outsiders who enter the orbit of this family-by-choice – Pops’ ex-partner Audrey O’Connor (Beverly Blanchette) and her cop fiancé Dave Caro (Michael Serratore), plus a mysterious woman simply called Church Lady (Sara Oliva) – reflexively engage in the not-so-fine art of twisting the truth. And yes, truth is a thing.
As he demonstrated with his production of Guirgis’ “The Motherf**ker With the Hat” five years ago, director Joseph Adler gets the playwright’s work, its rhythms and language, its sometimes outsized yet recognizable characters.
In a key scene best left undescribed for the sake of future audiences, Guirgis and Adler blend the sacred and the profane in an enjoyably shocking way. Think Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing,” and you’ll get the gist. (Adler, ever the contrarian, would probably argue that what some see as profane is as close to a sacred experience as it gets for others.)
Adler’s cast mixes South Florida actors (Rossi and Ramirez, who appeared in GableStage’s “Motherf**ker With the Hat,” plus Charles and Blanchette) with out-of-town talent (Finnie, Serratore and Oliva). If casting a play is half the battle, Adler pretty much won the war when he chose Finnie to play Pops.
A Drama Desk and Obie Award-winning actor, Finnie crafts the portrait of a man whose speech is peppered with profanity that flows like the Jack Daniels from the omnipresent bottle on his kitchen table. Cantankerous, quick and obviously warm-hearted, Finnie’s Pops gets some of Guirgis’ best lines, as when he tells Junior and company that pay-per-view TV “don’t mean I pay and you view.” Or when he says of Lulu neglecting to walk the dog, “Air entered the space between her ears, and she forgot.” Start to finish, Finnie is mesmerizing.
The play’s first scene is between Pops and the much-tattooed Oswaldo, and the way Finnie and Rossi deliver it lets the audience know it’s in for a wild yet perfectly calibrated comic ride. Rossi, who can go from soft-spoken to manic violence as fast as a Tesla goes from zero to 60, had recurring roles on “Graceland” and “Burn Notice.” He’s a fine stage actor who draws you in, only to make you sorry you got so close.
Charles is an often-sullen Junior, guarded until his emotions burst open as he and Pops dissect the past. As Lulu, Ramirez is sexy, kooky and very funny. Blanchette, whose Audrey gets to tell one of Guirgis’ wild tales, and Serratore are (at least initially) likably warm dissemblers. And Oliva, whose Church Lady is more comfortable with the spirituality of Brazilian Candomblé than with traditional Catholic communion, nails one of the wildest onstage transformations imaginable.
As always, Adler has impeccable collaborators in his design team: set designer Lyle Baskin, whose interpretation of Pops’ $1,500-a-month Riverside Drive digs illustrates how a well-worn yet rent-controlled apartment is a sublime asset; costume designer Ellis Tillman, who communicates style and class through his choices; lighting designer Bryan Kaschube and sound/music designer Matt Corey, each of whom provides emotional underscoring.
If you caught “The Motherf**ker With the Hat” or the excellent production of “Our Lady of 121st Street” by Rossi’s company Ground Up & Rising in early September, you know that Guirgis is a playwright with a distinctive voice and the ability to create vivid characters who veer from comedy to life-altering conflict with equal aplomb. GableStage’s delight-filled take on “Between Riverside and Crazy” provides more evidence of those strengths in a crazily captivating way.
“Between Riverside and Crazy” by Stephen Adly Guirgis, GableStage at the Biltmore Hotel, 1200 Anastasia Ave., Coral Gables. 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 2 and 7 p.m. Sunday, through Feb. 19. Cost:$42-$60 (students $15, Friday-Saturday and Sunday matinee excluded); 305-445-1119 or www.gablestage.org.
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