Oct 22, 2019
by Jeanie K. Smith , San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle
The 2015 Pulitzer Prize winner for Drama, Between Riverside and Crazy tops a long list of remarkable, edgy plays by American playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis. His ability to blend comedy and darkness, the rough with the smooth, in plays like The Mother****er with the Hat and The Last Days of Judas Iscariot, shimmers with social commentary and sizzling satire. He’s also good at a kind of magical realism, in-your-face American style, that offers up surprises for the heart and a gentle hope for humanity.
Walter “Pops” Washington (Corey Jackson) occupies a spacious New York apartment on upscale Riverside Drive, which he swears he’ll never leave because rent control keeps its current costs at one-tenth its value. He shares the space with his recently-paroled son, Junior (Sam Ademola), Junior’s fiancée Lulu (Pilar Gonzales) and Junior’s recovering addict friend Oswaldo (Jared N. Wright). A motley bunch, living off Pops’ pension as an ex-cop and engaging in various low-level scams for spare change.
Pops lost his wife to cancer within the past year; the aging Christmas tree in the background bears testament to his inability to accept her passing, and his bitterness and anger affect his relationships with the living. When young Lulu confides in him about her pregnancy, the news provides a glimmer of hope in his otherwise bleak outlook.
Police detective friend Audrey (Sandra Ish) comes for dinner with her fiancé Lieutenant Dave (Mike Schaeffer), revealing another reason for Pops’ bitterness. Eight years earlier he was shot, while off duty and out of uniform, by another cop, which left him impotent and at odds with his employer, as he insisted on bringing a lawsuit against NYPD. There’s an element of racism in the case that magnifies the shooter’s wrongdoing. (The apparent inspiration for the play was a similar incident in 1994.) Audrey and Dave plead with Pops to settle, to no avail. He stands to lose everything, even the apartment, and his pension, but he’s determined to stand tall against injustice.
There’s humor, that often plays like a modern version of the venerable Redd Foxx sitcom Sanford and Son. And there’s violence, and heartbreak, and even a mysterious visit from a “Church Lady,” (Serena Elize Flores) who is hardly what she seems to be. Pops must make peace with his past, the loss of his wife, and his son, before he loses his apartment, his life, for good— before he can step into the world again.
The current production at Left Edge Theatre manages to capture some of the comedy, but fails to bring forth the heart or the magic that enables Pops’ redemption. Embedded in the play is a beautiful ode to resilience and random acts of healing, all but buried in this interpretation. The talented actors are fully capable, and occasionally connect with the deeper veins of humanness offered in the script; sadly, the staging runs rough over opportunities for moments that might touch us or draw us in with empathy. There’s also far too much shouting, especially in the scenes with Pops, Audrey and Dave.
Set design by director Argo Thompson manages to convey a larger NYC flat on the intimate Left Edge stage, and cleverly reveals additional spaces, aided greatly by April George’s lighting design. Costumes by Sandra Ish speak volumes about the characters, and Kat Motley does well by a mountain of props.
A timely and intriguing play, hobbled by a production that unfortunately misses the mark.
By Stephen Adly Guirgis, Presented by Left Edge Theatre through Nov. 10, 2019
Thu/Fri/Sat at 8:00pm, Sun at 2:00pm
Tickets: $15-42; Thursday discount
Photos by Katie Kelley
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