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Anthony Chase: 'Between Riverside and Crazy' is fun and deception

"Between Riverside and Crazy" is the story of Pops, a disabled former cop, shot while off-duty and out of uniform by another cop. With real estate values skyrocketing, Pops’ landlords want to kick him out of his opulent apartment on Riverside Drive in New York City.

That’s what this play, by Stephen Adly Guirgis is about. That is also not what it’s about. Guirgis is a sly playwright. As soon as we think we know where he is taking us, he sends us careening in an entirely unexpected direction.

The current production of the play at Road Less Traveled Theater is smart and engaging. The company has done well with Guirgis before. He was one of their visiting masters of American Theater in 2011 when they did his play, "The Last Days of Judas Iscariot." Their 2017 production of his play with the unprintable title, "The" [expletive] "with the Hat" was superb.

"Between Riverside and Crazy" debuted off-Broadway in 2014. It was specifically written for Buffalo’s Stephen McKinley Henderson, his first starring role on the New York Stage, and went on to win the Pulitzer Prize. Henderson, who had previously appeared in "The Last Days of Judas Iscariot," played Pops with a cunning ease to match Guirgis. His command of language and his total onstage believability created a man who was both lovable and maddening.

Under the direction of Road Less Traveled artistic director Scott Behrend, the play is populated with an excellent ensemble of actors.

John Vines, who replaced another actor with just a few weeks notice, brings stinging wit and an agreeably deceptive sense of steadiness to Pops, creating a man whose turbulent waters run deep.

Pops’ world has shifted greatly since the recent death of his wife, who was, we are told, a steady model of virtue. Now on his own, Pops has allowed an unlikely crew of disreputable characters to move into his expansive apartment. These include Oswaldo, a recovering addict with unresolved father issues, played by Alejandro Gomez; Pops’ son, Junior, who spends his life going in and out of jail, played by Gabriel Robere; Junior’s flighty girlfriend, Lulu, played by Melinda Capeles; and a high maintenance, but not much loved dog that we never see.

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The set by Lou Iannone provides an efficient playing area, but does little to suggest the “palatial” Riverside Drive apartment that is the locus and nexus of all the events of the play. This is left to our imaginations, apparently. Maura Price, the resident costume designer, again uses contemporary clothes to communicate character with such perfection that her work looks effortless.

The actors in Pops’ domestic entourage, Gomez, Robere and Capeles, create distinct character types, almost as if Damon Runyon were still writing New York City stories. We half expect them to have names like Jailbird Junior, Opioid Oswaldo, and Loose Screw Lulu. These portrayals are great fun and in their way, artful. We do, however, feel the effort being exerted, as subtlety of interpretation takes a back seat to landing jokes. This is a possible remnant of the last-minute cast change.

Gomez delivers Oswaldo’s key moments, and cements his character’s lovability in our minds strongly enough to make his ultimate reversal all the more shocking. Capeles is a gifted comic actress and her technique is a phenomenon to behold, even when it exceeds the reality of the moment. Robere gives an unaffected performance, and provides the illusion of sincerity.

This crew of characters hovers around Pops with as much unsavory devotion as I imagine from the resident staff at Michael Jackson’s Neverland. While they selflessly attend to Pops’ every need (and yes, that is a facetious remark), there are visitors who try to offer true help – or so it seems. In these characters we find the surprising heart of the play.

Pops is engaged in a lawsuit against the New York City police department. The white cop who shot him, he says, abused him with racial epithets. His former partner, Detective O’Connor and her fiancé, Lieutenant Caro come for dinner with a well-intentioned ulterior motive.

Lisa Vitrano is marvelous as O’Connor, and entirely believable as this earnest and loyal woman. Dave Mitchell plays Caro, with waggish recklessness, providing grit and contrast to Vitrano’s remarkable authenticity. The two provide the unpredictable purpose of the story. All you need to remember is that everyone lies – almost.

Also perfection is Victoria Perez as the woman known only as “Church Lady.” Her two scenes deliver the most vivid images of the play. Without giving it away, I will just say that photographs of Perez with a communion wafer or with a diamond ring could unmistakably and eternally identify Between Riverside and Crazy.

With its teasing mind games and amusing twists, this play is a treat.

THEATER REVIEW

"Between Riverside and Crazy"

3.5 stars (out of four)

Runs Thursday through Sunday through March 31 at Road Less Traveled Theater (456 Main St.). Tickets are $38 at roadlesstraveledproductions.org.

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