Between Riverside and Crazy, an unruly fable from Motherfucker-with-the-Pulitzer Stephen Adly Guirgis, opens with a lecture about “emotional eating.” Newly clean-and-sober ex-con Oswaldo is explaining to retired NYPD cop/widower/veteran Walter Washington that breaking one’s fast with bologna-wrapped Ring Dings and grape soda is but one example of the sort of doomed self-medicating that leads to other, more damning bad choices. Trying to imagine that clash of artificial flavors is repellent, but it sure is evocative, and before a minute has gone by we’re fully immersed in Walter’s world. He doesn’t lack for company—current, non-rent-paying residents of his spacious if poorly-kept apartment include his ex-con son Junior; Lulu, Junior’s libidinous girlfriend (she claims, without much conviction, to be studying for an accounting degree); and Oswaldo, Junior’s childhood pal, all of whom address him, to his mild alarm, as “Dad.” And yet Walter is a lonely man.
Not that he’s the type to discuss his feelings. Walter is so bitterly unsentimental that he thinks nothing of lounging in his dead wife’s wheelchair—“comfortable seating,” he shrugs, reaching for his fifth of bourbon. In that bathrobe he doesn’t look like a proud man, but his pride is about to cost him what remains of his kingdom: His relationship with Junior, who may or may not still be involved in moving stolen goods, and his rent-controlled Riverside Drive digs, which on the open market would fetch a lot more than the $1,500 per month Walter has been paying since the late ’70s.
Here’s the rub: Walter has been fighting city hall for eight years, ever since a fellow cop mistook him for a perp and shot him. The brief outpouring of public sympathy has long dried up, and his refusal to settle his case for a sum the City of New York deems expedient has made him some powerful enemies. O’Connor, a detective who has kept ties with Walter since he was her training officer in her rookie year, is now engaged to a lieutenant who means to climb the ladder as high as he can. When the pair arrive at Walter’s place for dinner, you don’t have to be Det. Lennie Briscoe to sense a cold agenda behind their warmth and flattery.
Guirgis, who wrote the astonishing The Last Days of Judas Iscariot and the brutal The Motherfucker With the Hat, is one of the most original playwrights working, but you can see him straining here—just a little. The long after-dinner conversation in Act One that fills in the details of Walter’s injury piles on extenuating circumstances so relentlessly you can feel Guirgis’ insistence that we never be permitted to make a firm call of which party is in the right, or at least closer to the right. It’s to the credit of the trio of actors in this pivotal scene—Frankie Faison’s Walter, Emily K. Townley’s tough-but-amiable O’Connor, and David Bishins as her flinty fiancé, Lt. Caro—that even the few lines that seem to have leaked in from a hacky cop show don’t defeat them or even slow them down much (“There’s no black! No white! Just blue!”). While I’m policing individual lines, I have a hard time buying that a sexagenarian like Walter would refer to the white rookie who plugged him back in probably 2006 as “a skinny Justin Bieber motherfucker,” although then again maybe he would; Walter watches a lot of TV.
As self-defeatingly stubborn as Walter proves to be with his old partner, he’s tender with the kids, particularly Lulu, with whom he sneaks up to the roof to share a joint now and then. (Lee Savage’s lived-in two-story set is a marvel, showing us both the satellite-dish-bejeweled brick rooftop and the grimy interior beneath.) Sean Carvajal is earnest enough to break your heart as poor Oswaldo (a character who recalls Jackie, the recovering hero of Motherfucker, which Studio staged beautifully three years ago), and Jasmin Tavarez, in her professional stage debut, makes you suspect there’s more to Lulu than what’s on the page. As Junior, the son whom Walter implores to “Be a man!”, Bryant Bentley shows us Junior has already internalized that lesson, if the definition of “man” is a creature who remains stoic while feeling crushingly disappointed in himself.
The whole ensemble is convincing and, with the exception of Townley, new to performing at Studio. In its second half, Riverside veers into stranger territory, introducing a new character, Cristina Frias’ Church Lady, who comes to visit Walter to solicit a donation for the orphanage she represents. Guirgis seems to have given up the idea of the well-made play by then, ushering Walter into his next phase while allowing the fates of the other characters to remain oblique.
The show is directed by Brian MacDevitt, a veteran lighting designer with a shelf full of Tony Awards. He’s done a little directing before, but never a major production like this. To use a lighting term: It doesn’t show.
1501 14th St. NW. $20–$86. (202) 332-3300. studiotheatre.org.