At The SpeakEasy Stage
Reviewed by Bobby Franklin
Walter “Pops” Washington (Tyrees Allen) is a former N.Y. City police officer who is living in a rent controlled apartment. He is no longer on the force because he was shot six times by a rookie cop. The shooting took place at an after hours bar when Pops was off duty. Pops is black, the cop who shot him is white.
Between Riverside and Crazy by Stephen Adly Guirgiis does not fit into a narrative of a racist white cop shooting a black man. It gets much more complicated as the story moves along. Pops is sharing his apartment with his son Junior (Stewart Evan Smith), an ex con who is trying to turn his life around, though it appears he may still be a bit stuck in his old ways. Along with Junior is his girlfriend Lulu (Octavia Chavez-Richmond), who is pregnant and might be working as a prostitute, and Oswaldo (Alejandro Simoes), a friend of Junior’s who has been doing his best to stay clean and sober.
While the relationship between Junior and Pops is strained, Oswaldo appears to understand the cantankerous Pops and the opening dialog between the two is both funny and revealing. The elder Washington displays a degree of bitterness as he spends most of his days sipping whiskey. He is not only angry about having been shot, but also over the loss of his wife who died after a long illness. He spends time sitting in her wheelchair and you can see that he’s also dealing with the guilt of not having been the ideal husband.
He filed a law suit against the city eight years earlier and is seeking $5 million dollars in damages, but the city has not settled because of the circumstances of the shooting, which we learn more about as the play progresses. He is also receiving eviction notices.
As I said, this is not a play about police shootings. It is about how people play the game and play a bit fast with the truth to get what they want. While at times it seems underhanded, it never really goes over the top. How the rules are bent is in the eye of the beholder.
It is also a play about relationships. Pops finds it difficult to show affection to Junior, while he is more comfortable getting closer to Oswaldo and Lulu, both of whom he shows much empathy to.
Pops former partner Detective O’Connor (Maureen Keiller) and a Lieutenant Caro (Lewis D. Miller) visit Pops for dinner one evening. It doesn’t take long to realize there is an ulterior motive for the meeting as Caro attempts to get Pops to agree to a deal with the city. The smarmy Caro, the smarminess is overplayed here, is not so much looking out for Pops as he is advancing his own career by helping the city put this lawsuit behind them. Pops, as well as the audience, quickly sees through this game.
There are a number of other stories playing around all of this including Junior’s relationship with Lulu as well as how he seeks to receive words of affection from Pops, Oswaldo’s own issues with his father and his set back with staying clean. All are interesting, but I found a certain depth lacking in the way these stories are portrayed. While good, I thought there was so much to work with here that was left not fully developed.
There are two scenes where things seemed to really catch fire. When tempers flare between Pops and Caro over settling the lawsuit, it appears things are really going to get moving. It is a powerful scene, but the action fades shortly thereafter. It does regain steam later, but it felt to me like momentum was lost.
The other scene is when the Brazilian Church Lady (Celeste Oliva) comes to visit Pops. She is filling in for another caregiver, and like many of the characters in the play, is looking to get something for herself. It is quite the perfomance, both steamy and funny, Ms Oliva plays it outstandingly. Its a scene you will not forget.
Towards the end of the play Pops finds out Lieutenant Caro likes to play poker, and this is when we see how much of what is going on is like a giant poker game, with each player looking at his cards and seeing just how much he can bluff.
The play ends on an interesting note as the characters are pretty much revealed and while we may be tempted to judge some, if not all of them, harshly, just think about how you may have acted if you were in any of their positions.
Yes, I think this play could have been better, but it is definitely worth seeing. Tyrees Allen’s portrayal of Pops is a pleasure to watch. His humor, his anger, his human weaknesses, and his quest to find what he considers justice is well served in the hands of Mr. Tyrees, who does a wonderful job in the role. You’ll feel much the way Junior does when watching him. He will aggravate you, frustrate you, anger you, but you won’t be able to resist liking him.
I would also like to say that Alejandro Simoes is touching as Oswaldo. It is heartbreaking to see how bad things engulf good people. You will be rooting for him to make it and overcome the demons in his life. People make bad choices, but that doesn’t mean they are bad people. Smith’s Oswaldo shows us that.
I would recommend not approaching this play as a commentary on the ills of society, but rather to look at it through more personal lens. I believe in doing so, you will develop a more sympathetic view of people who play life’s poker game while keeping a few cards up their sleeves.
Just a note for those considering taking children to this play. It has much adult language and situations.
Between Riverside and Crazy
By Stephen Adly Gurgis, Directed by Tiffany Nichole Greene
At The SpeakEasy Stage Company, Calderwood Pavillon, 527 Tremont Street, South End, Boston.
Through October 13