While it wasn’t as exciting as the Hamilton audience booing Mike Pence, there was a moment of political frisson at Pittsburgh Public Theater’s Between Riverside and Crazy. A character launched into an extended vitriolic attack on Rudolph Giuliani … and the audience applauded. ¡Vive la revolución!
Playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis burst onto the scene in 2000, with Jesus Hopped the “A” Train. He tackled Broadway in 2011 with The Motherfucker With the Hat, and last year won the Pulitzer for Riverside.
The play concerns retired police officer Walter Washington, who possesses the New Yorker’s ultimate dream — a rent-controlled apartment on Riverside Drive. He also has an ongoing lawsuit with the NYPD because he was shot by a racist rookie cop and wants compensation.
The landlord is trying to evict Washington (so he can charge 10 times the current rent), and somehow the lease gets caught up in the lawsuit … which gets entangled with Washington’s son, Junior, who’s running a stolen-goods operation out of the apartment, and two fellow apartment-crashers, Junior’s girlfriend and a friend in recovery.
Guirgis has written some terrific scenes of first-class drama studded throughout, with great flashes of comedy. This is a fiercely entertaining script with only a few caveats: Guirgis stumbles in the second act, and plausibility takes a hit. The other warning is language and actions. It’s nothing you don’t see on TV, but apparently the Public audience doesn’t have cable. Or rather, some of them don’t, because there were walk-outs … right in the middle of a scene.
Which just makes it more fun, right? Pamela Berlin directs a hugely talented cast featuring rock-solid work by, among others, Bryant Bentley as the son, Christina Nieves as his squeeze, and Alejandro Hernandez as the friend. Dawn McGee and Drew Stone are fellow police officers working hidden agendas; McGee, especially, is deeply compelling.
This production, however, belongs to Eugene Lee as Washington, in a textbook example of how to command a stage with almost no visible effort. Crafted seemingly from throwaway looks and tossed-off emotional beats, Lee’s performance grows throughout the evening and, by the end, has bloomed into a monumental achievement. He is not to be missed.