Over the past decade or so, playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis has become the foremost interpreter of NYC’s Upper West Side — actually, make that Upper, Upper West Side, so you don’t conjure dewy-eyed visions of the Metropolitan Opera or Juilliard. And the language in his works would make a society matron blush (his description of spitting on a certain part of a nun’s anatomy in his most famous play, the Tony-nominated eyebrow-raiser The Motherf—er With the Hat, still widens these eyes). But Between Riverside and Crazy, playing at Off Broadway’s Atlantic Theater Company through Aug. 16, is quite possibly his most accomplished piece to date. And compared to his other street operas, it’s almost cuddly in its intimate family-living backdrop. In this case, cuddly also entails booze, drugs, and prostitutes.
Like all of Guirgis’ work, Riverside is populated with salty, blue-collar New Yorkers with a penchant for trouble. Walter (the divine Stephen McKinley Henderson) is a diabetic, heart-plagued, wounded ex-cop who subsists on a steady intake of booze and pie as breakfast food. He lives in a spacious apartment with his son, Junior (Ray Anthony Thomas), a former felon, and Junior’s buxom girlfriend (Rosal Colon), an accounting student who may also be a lady of the evening. Walter also takes in a recovering addict (Victor Almanzar) shakily trying to live a straight life.
Into this fragile domestic situation arrive some (relative outsiders): Walter’s former NYPD colleague Audrey (Elizabeth Canavan) and her new fianceé, Lt. Caro (Sopranos veteran Michael Rispoli, wonderfully wry), who re-raise questions about the events that led to Walter’s departure from the force — a shooting by a white rookie officer from which he still hopes to collect a big settlement from the city. (Walter still smarts from the act of violence by the ”Justin Bieber motherf—er.”) He’s also visited by a holy bead-adorned Church Lady (Liza Colon-Zayas), who becomes an unlikely confidante in ways I won’t dream of revealing here.
Austin Pendleton, a director known for a hushed, light touch more suited to Chekhov than the raucously profane ecosphere of Guirgis, has a firm handle on the material in this tremendously fine production. The delicate shifts in directorial tone (with a great assist by Walt Spangler’s oddly comforting turntable apartment set) enhance the twisted, cyclical (and even spiritual) logic of the play. Some moments are so quietly observant you almost feel as if you’re eavesdropping. Pendleton has the same gift for creating smart ensembles as Guirgis’s late, ongoing collaborator Philip Seymour Hoffman had with works like Our Lady of 121st Street and Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train, even with some of the same cast. This entire company is first-rate, though the diction could be sharpened in a few instances — Guirgis’ words are far too good to lose.
Between Riverside and Crazy offers a wonderful showcase for the talents of Henderson. After decades of fine character work in Broadway and Off Broadway productions of August Wilson and other luminaries, he finally gets to chomp into a dynamite leading role, and he does so gracefully and thoughtfully, without sanding down any of Walter’s rough edges. His Walter is a street poet who’d be right at home in the world of David Mamet. And since Mamet cofounded the Atlantic, in a way he already is. A?