Not all stage families are like the Von Trapps. Or the Pazinskis. Meet Walter Washington, affectionately called Dad by his son Junior, his son’s girlfriend, Lulu, and Junior’s friend Oswaldo. They all share Walter’s rent-controlled apartment on Riverside Drive and they comprise the complicated, flawed, funny, frightening family in playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis’ “Between Riverside and Crazy,” staged by Road Less Traveled Productions.
. . .strong. Solid. Gutsy.
This show is strong. Solid. Gutsy. RTLP director Scott Behrend staged other Guirgis works before, but this one grabs you. There are seriously funny moments, mostly dialogue-based when characters display the lighter side of their humanity. There are other moments that are intense insights into the hold addiction has on people who are struggling to get through another day. Addiction – whether to drugs, alcohol, old habits, poignant memories – is powerful, not crazy at all, just devastating.
Walter, (John Vines) is a former New York City cop, eight years in litigation with the police force over his disabling injury. He still mourns his late wife Dolores and uses her old wheelchair to sit in at the kitchen table as he sips whiskey from her good China tea cup. It’s here where the family banters and jokes and where Oswaldo (Alejando Gomez) admits to Walter that this is where he finds comfort as he embraces his sobriety and takes steps along a better path away from his “emotionalisms.” Vines and Gomez have great rapport as their characters: Gomez’s malapropisms have an earthy sweetness as he parrots the benefits of healthier eating and Vines brings the right balance of mature life experience and some urban wisdom to Walter. It’s a comfortable world in this kitchen, where tall boy beers are always in the fridge and it’s all good until the outside world beckons.
Junior (Gabriel Robere) is back home to look after his dad, but Junior has his struggles, too. He’s no stranger to the other side of the law, and his girlfriend Lulu (Melinda Capeles) may or may not have alternative ways to earn a living. Capeles is a hoot in this role: her comic chops shine in offbeat moment. Robere’s take on Junior is that he’s looking out for his Dad the best way he can. Every line he delivers is warm and protective
Lisa Vitrano is Walter’s old partner on the force. Now a detective, she brings her fiancé (Dave Mitchell) – a lieutenant on the force with his eyes on other things – to meet Walter. Mitchell plays the cunning cop role well, fey bumbling but sharp and ready to attack. You can see him seething under the good ol’ guy façade. Vitrano – who made stage magic in RLTP’s production of “The Illusion” earlier this season is clearly torn. She wants her old partner to settle the disagreement he has with the force which will help her fiancé, but she sees Walter as a father figure, too, even when she questions his motives and speculates how good a cop or a husband he really was. These two cops though are living room bound. They don’t have the privilege, the access to family safe zone, the kitchen.
The visiting church lady is in the kitchen though. Victoria Perez is mystifying as this nameless visitor, there to drink juice and eat cookies and bring churchly solace to Walter. She claims to see things, feel things, and wants Walter to give his soul to Jesus for healing. But her motives (and her methods) aren’t pure. When her ‘visit’ causes Walter to suffer a heart attack, his weakened heart actually strengthens his resolve to move on with his life, on his terms. Perez only has two brief scenes – both with Walter – and they are both exquisitely raw in different ways. Perez is an amazingly versatile actor: she saws two extremes in this character and she does so expertly.
In the end, it’s the apartment itself that is the central character. Its presence in this ersatz family’s life defines it. When it’s threatened, chaos reigns. As a home, it provides safety, sanctuary. Lou Iannone as set director got it right. The “bones” of a classic prewar apartment are there, but there are water stained walls and simple furnishings. It’s a home with some blemishes for a family that has some proverbial warts, too.
There’s one character we don’t see: the X$&$ing dog, Walter’s nemesis and pal that’s the objective of some pretty funny lines.
This plot is truly riveting. The characters are complex and there are moments that are so dark you want to turn away. But you can’t. You need to know. No surprise that this won the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 2015.
Running time: 90 minutes plus a 10-minute intermission.
“Between Riverside and Crazy” is onstage now to March 31, 2019. For more information, click here.