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Broadway Play Review—“Between Riverside and Crazy” with Stephen McKinley Henderson

Stephen McKinley Henderson, Victor Almanzar and Common in
Between Riverside and Crazy (photo: Joan Marcus)

Between Riverside and Crazy
Written by Stephen Adly Guirgis; directed by Austin Pendleton
Performances through February 12, 2023
Hayes Theatre, 240 West 44th Street, New York, NY
If there’s a reason to see the Broadway revival of Between Riverside and Crazy, the less-than-scintillating play by Stephen Adly Guirgus, it’s Stephen McKinley Henderson. This superlative actor, who has too often been relegated to secondary roles or as part of ensembles in August Wilson plays—where he’s stolen countless scenes—returns to his most substantial role yet as Pops, a widowed NYPD retiree living in an enormous rent-controlled Upper West Side apartment. Once again, Henderson dominates the proceedings with his gravelly voice, formidable frame and an affecting twinkle in his eye that invites the audience to share in the grand old larcenous time he’s having.
Pops—first seen at his kitchen table with Oswaldo, his son Junior’s convict friend, soon followed by Junior’s bimbo girlfriend Lulu, and finally ex-con Junior himself—is mad at the world, and himself, for how his life has gone. He was shot a few years ago by a rookie white officer, which forced him into retirement, and his ensuing squabble with the city is not going his way; in the mean time, his landlord is hoping to get him out of his incredibly cheap apartment and his former partner, Audrey, and her fiancée—and NYPD lieutenant—Dave are trying to talk him into finally settling with the city. Through all of this, he might as well be hosting a halfway house for Junior and his shady friends. 
As usual with Guirgis plays, this is a world not often seen onstage: the multiethnic diversity of his characters, most of whom are living on the margins of society, bursts into vivid life thanks to his unerring ear for their authentically slangy talk. However, although his grasp of the language of these marginal people is convincing, he often goes too far just for laughs: early on, for example, Pops has to ask who Ben Affleck is, while later, he nonchalantly tosses off a Justin Bieber reference. Would Pops really know about Bieber but not Ben?
Guirgis is also on shaky ground when putting his characters through their paces. When the supposedly sterile Pops is seduced by a Brazilian church lady hoping to get money out of him, he ends up having a miraculous orgasm; later, when he finally agrees to the city’s settlement, Pops wants Audrey and Dave to throw in something personal as their part of the bargain: her $30,000 engagement ring. 
And everyone gets a relatively happy ending—even Oswaldo, who earlier cold-cocked Pops when he wouldn't give him his credit card—underlining Guirgis’ desperate stratagems in getting from A to B, with the contradictory behavior on display less like the messily real complexity of life and more the improbable contrivances of the playwright.
Still, the play is never less than entertaining in Austin Pendleton's generous and well-paced production, which allows the terrific cast the ample breathing room that Guirgis’ breathless torrents of dialogue rarely do. The single newcomer, rapper Common, plays Junior with occasional hesitancy but plausible bemusement. 
Walt Spangler’s outstanding apartment set, which provides a comfortably lived-in backdrop to the fuzzy goings-on, also doubles as a frame through which to watch the acting genius of Stephen McKinley Henderson, whose characterization has deepened and darkened in the years since he last assayed it, bringing onstage the baggage of so many victims of police shootings.

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