A proud old man stands his ground at ACT
ACT’s Geary Street stage bursts with life in the company’s 49th season opener, Stephen Adly Guirgis’s vivid and profane Between Riverside and Crazy. The life the play reveals belongs to New York City cops and criminals, who intersect explosively in a rent-controlled apartment on Riverside Drive.
Inside the apartment’s shabby walls everybody claims to tell it like it is, but “is” stands on shifting ground.
The central character is not a criminal—not exactly, though it turns out he’s dicey, to put it in politely. A grizzled black guy with a grown son, Walter “Pops” Washington is a former cop who, eight years ago, got shot six times after hours in a bar. Accidentally? The shooter was drunk, but he was white, and he was a fellow officer, too, and Pops still resents what happened, insisting that those shots stand for the six letters in the “n” word.
His wife died shortly after the event. Now he has two problems. One is hanging onto his apartment, which would rent for ten times what he’s paying if the landlord could pry him loose (the landlord is doing everything he can to get rid of him). The other is the aftermath of the shooting that forced him to retire. He filed a lawsuit, now long-running, against the city. The city might settle if he’d sign a non-disclosure agreement (they don’t want the story of a white cop blasting away at a black one to heat up) in exchange for a hefty payout.
Proud and angry, Pops has refused to compromise until now, but can he keep on saying no? His ex-con son, Junior, deals stolen goods out of the apartment. The cops are onto Junior, and if a search warrant scoops up evidence against him, it will invalidate Pops’ rent control, jail his boy, and finish off his chance at a settlement.
Pride versus practicality. What’s the old guy to do?
The black and white of the play (no pun intended) shades to a rich and complex gray in the presence of its other denizens: Oswaldo, a recovering drug addict who lives with Pops; Lulu, Junior’s twitchy tease of a girl friend, who delivers the play’s most memorable line: “I may look how I look, but that don’t mean I’m the way how I look”; Detective Audry O’Connor and Lieutenant Dave Cross, two cops who claim to have Pops’ best interests at heart; and most surprising of all, a sexy “Church Lady,” who isn’t what she seems.
The dialogue playwright Gurguis puts in the mouths of these characters has a wonderful, raw rhythm. Its pulsing, uncensored flow is as far from drawing room drama as you can get, but no audience will complain, and the opening night crowd at ACT burst into laughs even while it gasped.
Irene Lewis directs firmly but generously, helped by Christopher Berea (set design), Candine Donnelly (costumes), Seth Reiser (lighting), and Leon Rothenburg (sound).
The punchy cast is headed by Carl Lumbly in a rich, strong performance as the beleaguered Pops, who has to juggle several lives while keeping his own aloft. He’s abetted by Lakin Valdez (Oswaldo), Samuel Ray Gates (Junior), Elia Monte-Brown (Lulu), Catherine Castellanos (Church Lady), Gabriel Marin (Dave) and Stacey Ross (Audrey).
A sizzling start to ACT’s 2015-16 season, Between Riverside and Crazy plays on Geary Street until September 27th, followed by Eugene O’Neill’s Ah, Wilderness. For tickets/information call 415-749-2228 or visit act-sf.org.