Thursday 16 May 2024

Theatre review: Between Riverside and Crazy

Most actors take a bit of a break after playing King Lear; Danny Sapani barely seems to have taken a breath between his run at the Almeida and another intense, deeply damaged leading man at Hampstead, in Stephen Adly Guirgis' 2014 play Between Riverside and Crazy. Eight years ago Walter "Pops" Washington (Sapani) had to retire from the NYPD after being shot six times by a rookie cop - not actually in the line of duty, although his former employers have more or less treated him as if he was. But Pops has turned down every compensation offer they've ever made, preferring to continue being a thorn in their side and an embarrassment to them, who's still convinced he can get a settlement worth millions. Now Pops' wife has died after a long illness, and he's filled his large rent-controlled apartment with a collection of ex-cons he's trying to help reform.

This domestic setup consists of his son Junior (Martins Imhangbe,) Junior's girlfriend Lulu (Tiffany Gray,) who adores him even though Pops consistently tells her the feeling isn't mutual, and Junior's best friend Oswaldo (Sebastian Orozco,) who's in Narcotics Anonymous and hopefully making some progress.

But the company Pops keeps has given the police some leverage: His ex-partner Audrey (Judith Roddy) has come over for dinner with her fiancé Dave, who's not only played by Daniel Lapaine but also has a 'tache so we're doubly warned he's going to be on the oily side. Their ulterior motive is to deliver the NYPD's latest deal, which is more like an ultimatum: There's no longer any money on offer, but if he doesn't comply they'll stop protecting him from the landlord who wants to kick him out, and also stop turning a blind eye to some dodgy deals that could land Junior back in prison.

This is the underlying jeopardy in the play, but for the most part it's played out in the background as we focus on the love the other characters have for Pops, and his inability to return it, at least not visibly. Sapani certainly seems to have carried over some of that complex Lear energy to hit the ground running as an infuriating lead - there's an obvious kindness and genuine quality to Pops, but his relentless self-sabotaging makes him hard to truly like.

This ranges from coldness towards his son, to his alcoholism, to his power plays over the settlement - even when he seems to be getting everything he wants he always has some added stipulation, often so unreasonable it's bound to stop negotiations again. One interesting element of watching the play is trying to put together Pops' motivations, especially as Adly Guirgis leaves some plot elements mysterious: At first, the dispute over Pops' claim that the shooting was racially motivated feels like it'll be a case of institutional police racism; but when we start to learn more about why he really shouldn't have been in that bar that night it makes us question the rest of his story.

Adly Guirgis is known for his abrasively comic dialogue, and that's amply in evidence here. He's also fond of venturing into the metaphysical, and Michael Longhurst's production feels a bit shakier here: Although Max Jones' set nicely suggests that things are going off into slightly odder angles in the second half, the arrival of the Church Lady (Ayesha Antoine,) a Brazilian woman prone to mystical pronouncements who's unexpectedly replaced his usual volunteer visitor from the church, feels like it's never quite sure how far into the supernatural it wants to tip the story. Ultimately entertaining, Between Riverside and Crazy also leaves quite a few questions unanswered, both in the positive way where you're left to make up your own mind, and in the negative way where you're not sure where the playwright was trying to go with it.

Between Riverside and Crazy by Stephen Adly Guirgis is booking until the 15th of June at Hampstead Theatre.

Running time: 2 hours 25 minutes including interval.

Photo credit: John Persson.

1 comment:

  1. I saw this last night.

    First 20 minutes I was unsettled. I haven't been to a play in such a long time where working class characters, covered in dirt and deception and denial, are played with energy. They're not side characters feeding lines to the principal angelic, morally upright and more affluent lead. The messy nest of people living or moving through the apartment are grasping to get one more rung up the ladder away from their situation.

    When I read the programme afterwards and realized how much was real, it hit home how important this play is.

    Hugely enjoyable, tense, funny in places, emotive... It is going to live rent free in my head for a long time.

    Really worth repeat viewing and performances. Like Arthur Miller or Tennessee Williams, it'll be great to see how the play changes and is reinterpreted by future generations.