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  • Jonathan Kalb

Between Riverside and Trumpism

Stephen Adly Guirgis’s Between Riverside and Crazy, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 2015 after a triumphal 2014 run at the Atlantic Theatre, may be the best drama we’ve yet seen about the pervasive sense, now polarizing America, that our whole social system is rigged. It’s certainly Guirgis’s best play—the tale of a Black ex-cop who nurses a grudge (over being shot by a white cop) that seems perfectly straightforward until it starts taking seriously crazy turns.

The play sparkles with Guirgis’s comic brilliance—his trademark gritty-glass humor never sags in it—and it features one of his juiciest ever crews of precisely drawn New York City lowlifes. Yet its real singularity, for me, is the way it uses the raffish antics of its amiable hustlers, addicts, and ex-cons this time as a tacit political warning—not the typical thrust of a Guirgis work.

That warning element, gleaming just beneath the story surface, is what most stands out for me in the play’s new Broadway re-mount—which I recently saw, 6 weeks after the opening, because Covid outbreaks in the cast forced my tickets to be rescheduled twice. The production at the Helen Hayes Theater is more or less identical to the marvelous original one 7 years ago at the Atlantic, directed by Austin Pendleton. Only a single cast member is different: Common has replaced Ray Anthony Thomas as Junior.

And yet how much has changed! The world of 2023, for one thing, casts the stubbornness of the play’s protagonist in a wholly new light. It’s astonishingly evident now that Guirgis anticipated the political tsunami that overwhelmed our country in 2016. His play was eerily prescient about the fires of class warfare that Trump would fan (and still fans). It explicitly dramatizes the seething class resentment behind the deliberate irrationality he modeled for the hard right—you know, the own-the-libs posture of never acknowledging inconvenient facts, which drives us all crazy.

The play’s plot revolves around the apparent irrationality of Pops (a.k.a Walter Washington), a widowed ex-cop played by Stephen McKinley Henderson with unforgettable subtlety, mischief, and verve. Pops was shot 8 years earlier in an ambiguous incident whose racial component is disputed (he was plastered and belligerent outside an after-hours bar and didn’t identify himself as a cop). Since the shooting, Pops has refused all offers of financial settlement from the City, preferring endless litigation by his sketchy lawyers. He spends his time mostly sitting in his dead wife’s wheelchair (“It’s comfortable seating”), presiding like a “grieving despot King” over the palatial, pre-war, rent-controlled apartment on Riverside Drive that he rents for a tenth of its market value, now seedy, filthy, and run-down.

His neighbors have been complaining about pot-smoking, vandalism, “unsavory characters,” and more, but he feels untouchable.

I’m a ex-cop, war veteran Senior Citizen with a legal rent control lease from 1978 and I never pay late—I wish they would try to fuck with me.

But it turns out that he is touchable. The landlord is using nuisance laws to try to evict him. Pops shares the flat with his son Junior, a small-time thief who stashes loot there, Junior’s ex-con friend Oswaldo (superbly played by a Victor Almanzar), an addict who loves Pops even though he attacks him when strung out, and Junior’s hilariously dim girlfriend Lulu (played by Rosal Colón with a bodacious, slinky deadpan), who claims to be an accounting student but never studies or goes to class and may be a hooker. Pops is fond of them all and enjoys their company. He’s wise to their evasions and games but accepts rather than judges them—exuding a wily chillness that is central to the play’s deviant beauty.

The main complication arrives when two old white pals visit for dinner: Pops’s former patrol partner, Audrey O’Connor, now a detective, and the administrative lieutenant David Caro she’s engaged to. This couple (played by Elizabeth Canavan and Gary Perez) seems to genuinely care about him, swapping jokes, street memories, and tales of the hated Rudy Giuliani, in an air of warm camaraderie. It’s soon clear, though, that they really came to try to get him to settle his suit. The case has dragged on so long, they say, and his apartment scene has grown so problematic, that any legal leverage he once had is gone. A generous new payout offer is being held out now because certain ambitious politicians (Caro’s bosses) want the case to go away and they urge him to accept it.

Pops’s intransigence in the face of this perfectly reasonable proposal is the core of the drama. He simply won’t budge, even after an eviction notice and a serious heart attack. Still crazier (spoiler warning here!), when the couple visits again, bearing yet another settlement offer to his bedside like mercy-messengers from heaven, he shocks them and us by demanding O’Connor’s engagement ring as the price for his signature. The ring, we’ve heard, is worth $30,000 and was bought with Caro’s poker winnings. So much for friendship! Craziest of all, Pops doesn’t even keep the ring after getting it. He ends up giving it away to a hustler who’d posed as a church lady and orphan advocate (Maria-Christina Oliveras, excellent). “There are no Orphans, Walter” she clarifies, incredulous at the gift. “Well—there are Orphans somewhere,” he retorts—a magnificently understated closing line.

Since 2014, this ending has baffled and disappointed countless critics who have otherwise praised the play. The continuing general puzzlement is evident in many of the reviews from this December. I submit, though, that its sense should be perfectly clear in the present political moment—as clear as the smug, what-me-worry shrugs of Matt Gaetz and the swaggering selfies of Marjorie Taylor Greene. Walter Washington, like them, is a chaos agent, and Guirgis doesn’t cloak that one bit. He hides it in plain sight, revealing in the play’s final twists only the appalling depth of Pops’s commitment to chaos.

In a recent forum on the future of liberalism in Harper’s, Cornel West reflected on the “neofascist backlash” now menacing the United States. Its biggest driver, he said, is that too many of our “fellow citizens . . . are thoroughly convinced that the professional-managerial class is dominated by greed and arrogance and condescension and haughtiness and has given up on respecting them as human beings.” Pluralism, equity and diversity may be bywords in every institution now, but the average person gleans little benefit from them because their main result has been greater “multiculturalism within the professional-managerial class [which] . . . just makes class hierarchy more colorful.” People like Pops, in our world, “still feel as if they’re pushed to the margins, as if their dignity is being crushed” regardless of the well-meaning liberalism they hear from their friends.

There is no better explanation, I think, for the contempt Pops so shockingly shows for O’Connor and Caro. The social game of America, for him, has always been hopelessly rigged. All he hears when Caro speaks of solidarity (“We’re all cops here, Walter, right? No black, no white—just Blue”) is managerial opportunism: the complacent insider’s itch to get “promoted up the damn ‘Alpo dog food’ police chain.” Hence, with no education, no political connections, no stake for a 5-figure poker game let alone a chance to win one, and no rights anymore to the one chance at “elite” wealth he ever had (his rent-controlled apartment), Pops lets himself savor the rush of burning it all down—his integrity, his professional connections, his credit, everything that smacks of the system he never felt truly part of.

I’m aware that Guirgis’s main reason for writing the play probably wasn’t just to drive home this polemical point. Nevertheless, there’s no avoiding the impression right now that he’s daring the elite theaterati to grasp it.

Photos: Joan Marcus

By Stephen Adly Guirgis

directed by Austin Pendleton

Second Stage/Helen Hayes Theater

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