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Thursday, September 10, 2015

Drunken Truths from a Grizzled Ex-Cop in A.C.T.'s Between Riverside and Crazy

Posted By on Thu, Sep 10, 2015 at 12:15 PM

click to enlarge Carl Lumbly as Walter "€œPops" Washington - KEVIN BERNE
  • Kevin Berne
  • Carl Lumbly as Walter "€œPops" Washington

The American Conservatory Theater kicked off its 2015-16 season with the Pulitzer Prize-winning comedy-drama Between Riverside and Crazy, Stephen Adley Guirgis’ look at police violence, race relations, dysfunctional families, and how the bureaucratic steamroller will mow down a man’s integrity. It’s remarkably pithy for tackling so many subjects at once, a tightly directed — and it’s frequently laugh-out-loud hilarious. Pride goeth before a fall, but not without landing a few zingers first, and maybe a nibble on a Bologna 

click to enlarge Lieutenant Caro (Gabriel Marin) chats with Lulu (Elia Monte-Brown) - KEVIN BERNE
  • Kevin Berne
  • Lieutenant Caro (Gabriel Marin) chats with Lulu (Elia Monte-Brown)

Walter “Pops” Washington lives in a weathered Upper East Side apartment with his hapless son Junior (Samuel Ray Gates), along with Junior’s manipulative airhead girlfriend Lulu (Elia Monte-Brown) and his cheerful, recovering drug addict friend Oswaldo (Larkin Valdez), a chatterbox armed with recently acquired therapeutic verbiage who’s become Pops’ “breakfast buddy” since moving in. All three are involved in crime and deception to one degree or another, but the recently widowed Pops — disabled for years after a white cop shot him six times, once for every letter of the N-word — spends his days in a drunken stupor, waiting for the lawyers to win him that $5 million award and worried more about who ate the last of the Cool Whip than about hot merchandise under his own roof. His three charges all call him “Dad,” and Pops loves it, though he won’t admit it.

Act I takes place almost entirely inside the apartment, where a dinner party involving Pops’ no-nonsense ex-partner, Audrey (Stacy Ross), and her fiancé Lt. Caro (Gabriel Martin) goes awry after they plead with him to accept the city’s generous settlement. Dispatching Junior to Baltimore for the weekend with an eerie warning not to get locked up, Pops throws them both out, only to get involved in a physical confrontation with a highly intoxicated Oswaldo. (The pantomimed fighting is positively terrible, the play’s only real black mark. It’s unfortunate that it ends the first act.)

click to enlarge Oswaldo (Lakin Valdez) has a conversation with Walter "Pops" Washington - KEVIN BERNE
  • Kevin Berne
  • Oswaldo (Lakin Valdez) has a conversation with Walter "Pops" Washington

A truncated second act feels more like a coda than a first than a standalone counterweight, but it’s not without its moments. Pops’ ability to see straight through bullshit keeps his posture upright even after life kicks all the legs out of the proverbial stool beneath him, but he’s still blind to a lot of what goes on. When a Church Lady finally visits, it’s not the usual Glenda, but a Brazilian seductress and possible Candomblé Ketu practitioner (Catherine Castellanos) whose attempt to faith-heal Pops by provoking his first erection in years sends him into cardiac arrest. (How he could believe for a second that she’d be part of his church shows how naïve and trusting the old man can be.) 

While Pops convalesces, the family disintegrates almost completely, and a second showdown between the grizzled Pops and the ambitious Caro destroys Pops’ relationship with Audrey for good. Whether Pops finds true redemption or is just a damned old fool is up to viewers to decide, but it’s heartbreaking to see the once-optimistic Oswaldo eating junk food and whistling through a mouth full of missing teeth, having relapsed after a nasty encounter with his own biological father.

Mercifully, Giurgis' play contains no speechifying, and the bare minimum of playing to a bourgeois-liberal audience's sense of justice. It's slyly ambiguous throughout, and never stops being funny. (Even when the joke's on Pops, it's never cruel.) At its core, Between Riverside and Crazy shows the tenuous grip people have on stability. Pops feels secure knowing that his tenancy dates to 1978, but both the building and the city have been keeping tabs on the many violations of the lease, while his lawsuit, having dragged on for years, may or may not rest on the whims of some shysters who are happy to soak up all the billable hours they can. And there’s a secret wrinkle to Pops’ claim, too, one which crystallizes his reasons for fighting with no end in sight even as it delegitimizes them. If, as Lt. Caro recites, you can’t find city hall, then Pops ought not to have tried. But maybe there was never another way.

Between Riverside and Crazy
, through Sept. 27, at the American Conservatory Theater, 405 Geary, 415-749-2228.

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About The Author

Peter Lawrence Kane

Peter Lawrence Kane is SF Weekly's Arts Editor. He has lived in San Francisco since 2008 and is two-thirds the way toward his goal of visiting all 59 national parks.


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