Between Riverside and Crazy

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Here’s the thing about this review: it’s loaded. Overall, the play was great because the acting and directing were well executed. Although, it tackles some issues with race that are compromising the sugary concept of a cut-and-dry satisfactory resolution by having all the principal characters be involved in some shady activities. To boot, they are all minorities, but what irks me even more is that the play eventually shines a redemptive light on these characters in a shallow, flash-in-the-pan type ending. Nothing is really resolved, but you’re left feeling as if something was. The play is contradictory, and therefore a real challenge.

Between Riverside and Crazy has very well written, spunky dialogue that is contemporary and full of a punchy imagery that acknowledges every side of New York City’s facets. The characters are introduced with a well-intact identity that almost immediately belies their truth and complexity. Three of these characters are black, two of them Latino, and two of them white. They all speak in a familiar way which outlines the brashness and confidence of New York City dwellers. There’s a relativity towards how New Yorkers approach the subject of health: “fit and diesel” or “ring dings and baloney”; or how they approach well-being: “You got emotionalisms, you know. Emotionalism is real.” It’s here that we see either truth or stereotype. Relatable characters relating an essence of what it is to be a New York identity, full of worldly knowledge, assertive confidence and wit.

Eugene Lee and Alejandro Hernandez
Eugene Lee and Alejandro Hernandez

The staging is brilliant and director Pamela Berlin deserves great praise for utilizing the full scope of body language and keeping the motivations subtle. When the arguments happen, the reasoning, the dissonance, the anger are all well practiced and presented to be natural. The body movement and activity of the actors is constantly engaged and makes the stage active and alive; especially Eugene Lee’s palpable drunkenness as Pops. It would be a disservice not to highlight Eugene Lee’s “Pops” whose every gesture, every phrase emanates the character with bold interpretation. He has animated eyes that speak mannerism fiercely making it a pleasure to watch this man in the lead.

The characters are introduced with a well-intact identity that almost immediately belies their truth and complexity. Alejandro Hernandez’s Oswaldo really works his drawn Bronx dialect and enthusiastic punchiness within the character and Christina Nieves’ coy, Puerto-Rican Lulu swims in her character’s giddy freedom and youthful impetuousness. All these New Yorkers speak in a familiar way which outlines the brashness and confidence of the New York City: the fastest city in America and its underserved, self-assured citizens.

Some of the best acting of this show was performed by Dawn Mcgee’s Detective Audrey O’Connor. Her talent for staging provided so much emotional understanding of the character. She guards herself behind a chair, she defends herself with her arms crossed, she crosses the stage to make a point. It was true to life and yet so charismatically dramatic.

This story focuses heavily on identity; particularly black identity. The crux of the drama regards whether the main character “Pops” Washington was the victim of a clumsy trigger-finger or a hate crime. Throughout the play audiences come to understand the mixed motivations of characters. This play circles the idea of identity and what it means to be a minority in New York City. All of the four minority characters involve themselves in either criminal activity or scandalous lies.

Dawn McGee, Drew Stone and Eugene Lee
Dawn McGee, Drew Stone and Eugene Lee

This play is centrally about gentrification and the cultural appropriation that comes along with it. The setting provides weight to the theme; the rent-controlled apartment is a fortress built up around a gentrifying neighborhood. It is the owner’s garrison; his battle for ownership in a changing world as well as a hold-out for another time. The play seeks to identify the main character’s complex struggle that is the aging and underserved class feuding with the evolution of New York’s gentrification. The Public gives a great identity to this place: both claustrophobic and cozy. The rotating stage was central, adding intimacy with each rotation as it allows characters to be given one last action as they exit. This was a particularly striking theatrical effect, it gives the illusion of the heaviness of a moment, as if setting the action up for its place in the historical importance of each scene.

The play is full of rich Black and Puerto Rican humor and performance, but it’s an uncomfortable situation to take eyes away from the stage and see an almost entirely white audience and wonder with what understanding is this joke making people laugh. The idea of racism as an institutional concept would infer certain assumptions about why people do the things they do. I am left to contemplate: how is this story of African-Americans and Latinos trying to get by with a liberated concept of entitlement playing on this audience? At this performance of Between Riverside and Crazy, the mostly white audience finds humor in the strange depictions of minorities that are probably built upon dedicated truths of New York individuals, but it still creates a weird mythology particularly because only the minority characters in the play were involved in some kind of illegal activity or lying game. Is the audience laughing with the characters or at them? Importantly, the white characters are cops. But they too beguile and manipulate in a way meant to orchestrate some concept of justice that sits apart from a greater truth: to be a black cop is to be an agent disliked by all parts of society.

Christina Nieves and Bryant Bentley
Christina Nieves and Bryant Bentley

I left this play’s first act feeling it was a brilliant, modernist diatribe and exactly what to expect from Pittsburgh Public: Realism!, i.e. the nitty-gritty Arthur Miller-esque truth of mundane, regular life. These stereotypes are prevalent for a reason; people do grandstand in New York and they do make jokes throughout conversation in a way that this play captures truly. It’s after the play’s conclusion and the sharp contradictions lain within the reliability of the protagonists, that I left thinking this play was either half-baked or brilliantly modeled to make you fiercely work towards understanding why anyone was a worthwhile character in this story.

By the end of the play I felt both dissatisfied and overwhelmed trying to figure out why it was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 2015. A lot of the conflicts are written off and the epilogue-type ending seems to ruin the arcs of drama that compelled the plot. It’s all hung up on a talisman which is very hard to give gravity to. There are a lot of are big questions of the play and I don’t feel a satisfactory answer is laid out easily for any one of them.Everyone is essentially a criminal, and I think it’s an important task to come to understand why. Looking at in that context, perhaps the less-redeeming qualities of some of the criminally-acting characters in this play can actually be seen as redemptive in certain light. Perhaps that’s the key to the play; the truth of the world is that life is shit and you have to just run with it.

The Pulitzer Prize committee must have thought so. Because in depth, this play searches for a truth amongst what we as a society, as a justice-wielding throng of onlookers, have decreed as criminal. Overall, it is well-told, full of kinetic performance, as well as rich character development and dialogue

Special thanks to the Pittsburgh Public Theater for complimentary press tickets. Between Riverside and Crazy runs through December 11th. Tickets and more information can be found here.

Photos courtesy of the Pittsburgh Public Theater.