SpeakEasy's "Riverside and Crazy": Rant Control

Lewis D. Wheeler, Maureen Keiller, Stewart Evan Smith,  Tyrees Allen
& Octavia Chavez-Richmond in "Between Riverside and Crazy"
(photo: Nile Scott Studios)

Leave it to SpeakEasy Stage Company to start off its twenty-eighth season with a Pulitzer Prize winner for Drama Between Riverside and Crazy by Stephen Adly Guirgis (Mother****er with a Hat). Guirgis is famous (or infamous) for unprintable titles and an unholy alliance of the sacred and the secular, as in his former works Jesus Hopped the 'A' Train, Last Days of Judas Iscariot, and Our Lady of 121st Street. This play is populated by his familiar types of con artists and misfits, living on the fringes of society, each with her or his little piece of dirt or secret they're covering up, each revealed with this playwright's uncanny ear for realistic dialog. Hailed as “the reigning poet of the obscene” or “bard of the underbelly”, Guirgis says he continually “swings for the fences”. This work arrives much heavier on plot than most of the plays being written these days, and thus more traditional in structure, more plot-driven, though riddled as usual with his discomforting mix of the philosophical and the profane. As Director Tiffany Nichole Greene sees it, the characters in this play share a deep-seated fear of failure, of being vulnerable, of realizing that what you finally see won't be enough; one's manhood and legacy are threatened, accompanied by broken intimacy and desperation. They fundamentally suffer from a fear of being seen, as they struggle to stay beneath the radar.

Alejandro Simoes & Tyrees Allen in "Between Riverside and Crazy"
(photo: Nile Scott Studios)

This work features an extended family of sorts, headed by Walter “Pops” Washington (Tyrees Allen), a retired disabled cop and recent widower. “Pops” shares his rent-controlled apartment with his son recently released from prison, Junior (Stewart Evan Smith), Junior's girlfriend “student” Lulu (Octavia Chavez-Richmond) and Junior's pal Oswaldo (Alejandro Simoes). There is also a Church Lady (Celeste Oliva) and two police officers, Lieutenant Caro (Lewis D. Wheeler) and his girlfriend and colleague Detective O'Connor (Maureen Keiller). All are at one and the same time incredible but true characters, or as the playwright himself puts it, comprise a glorious mass of contradictions. As Lulu proclaims: “I may look how I look, but that don't mean I am how I look”. The same could be said for all these players, most notably “Pops”, a father figure yet stubborn and not above extortion in a battle to retain his dignity and pride, determined to hang on to his place because he's lost almost everything else. As is true for most of us, he wants something to symbolize that it was all worth it. In this hectic world of bologna ring dings, with a son not living up to his father's dreams (as Pops urges, “hurry up and become a man already, so I can break a hip and die”) and pressure from others for their own financial and political gain, the only response these tormented souls can muster is to rant. At the heart of the play is the fact that Pops can be more emotionally available to people unrelated to him, in whose histories he has no role or responsibility. How he finally stoops to conquer won't be revealed here, but it hinges on a high stakes game he refers to (ironically, in context) as “poker”.

Tyrees Allen & Stewart Evan Smith in "Between Riverside and Crazy"
(photo: Nile Scott Studios)

Greene, in her Speakeasy directorial debut, evinces profound understanding of these walking wounded and draws from this cast fascinatingly complex individuals, most notably Allen in a towering portrayal, with Smith, Chavez-Richmond, Simoes, Oliva, Wheeler and Keiller each giving memorable arias. The complicated Scenic Design is by Eric D. Diaz, with apt Costume Design by A. W. Nadine Grant, fine Lighting Design by Daisy Long and Sound Design by Nathan Leigh. Appropriately, credit is also given to the intricate Props Design by Jennifer Butler.

Octavia Chavez-Richmond, Stewart Evan Smith, Tyrees Allen, Lewis D. Wheeler
& Maureen Keiller in "Between Riverside & Crazy"
(photo: Nile Scott Studios)

It's no wonder that this excellent work, SpeakEasy's finest achievement in recent memory, has earned so many accolades elsewhere (which Guirgis eschews as meaningless). In all of his plays, God, fate and divine justice simmer beneath the surface in what he describes as meditations about trying to put away childish things. He asserts that what matters to him most are stories about people in pain (mostly in the New York City he knows best) who, against all odds, maintain faith in the possibility of their own redemption, believing that they are the victims of a cosmic joke.

If true, the joke's on them (and us). Find out at the Calderwood Pavilion through October 13th.

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