Between Riverside and Crazy

September 21, 2018

in Plays

Play (2014)
by Stephen Adly Guirgis

Directed by Tiffany Nichole Greene

Speakeasy Stage Company
Boston Center for the Arts
South End, Boston
September 14 – October 13, 2018

With Tyrees Allen (Pops), Celeste Oliva (Church Lady), Stewart Evan Smith (Junior), Alejandro Simoes (Oswaldo), Octavia Chavez-Richmond (Lulu), Lewis D. Wheeler (Lieutenant Caro), Maureen Keiller (Detective O’Connor)

Celeste Oliva as Church Lady, Tyrees Allen as Pops in 'Between Riverside and Crazy'

Celeste Oliva as Church Lady
Tyrees Allen as Pops
in “Between Riverside and Crazy”
Photo: Nile Scott Studios
Courtesy of Speakeasy Stage Company

A tragicomedy about an African-American off-duty cop in New York, wounded by a white cop, being pressured into accepting a financial settlement in exchange for withdrawing charges.

Pops (Tyrees Allen), a wild, open, wonderful character, an ex-cop, prone to drink, had been wounded severely when off-duty, by a white cop who mistook him for an intruder. Detective O’Connor (Maureen Keiller), his old cop partner, and Lieutenant Caro (Lewis D. Wheeler), her fiance and a rising force on the city police force, want Pops to take a deal to withdraw charges against the white cop and to sign a nondisclosure agreement which would hide the terms of the deal. Meanwhile, Pops’ son, Junior (Stewart Evan Smith), the son’s live-in girlfriend, Lulu (Octavia Chavez-Richmond), and his buddy from jail Oswaldo (Alejandro Simoes), all populate the scene. All affectionately call Pops Dad, which he in fact rises to effectively be despite his grumpiness, his drinking, and his various personality angles. A self-declared church lady (Celeste Oliva) comes to take Pops’ spiritual pulse and in unexpected ways jacks it up considerably.

This play is about sad and difficult characters, but is written with considerable humor and played so exquisitely and exuberantly by Tyrees Allen in the title role that it offers a very potent comedic antidote to its grim setup. Imagine aspects of a police corruption drama like Serpico (1973) with an extremely funny, vulnerable, flawed, African-American, cop in the lead role.

Alejandro Simoes as Oswaldo, Tyrees Allen as Pops in 'Between Riverside and Crazy'

Alejandro Simoes as Oswaldo
Tyrees Allen as Pops
in “Between Riverside and Crazy”
Photo: Nile Scott Studios
Courtesy of Speakeasy Stage Company

The opening of the play does not betray the central theme for quite a long time, and features Pops holding forth in his kitchen with Oswaldo, his son’s jail friend, and Lulu, his son’s girlfriend. Eventually, Junior, his son, makes it on the scene and joins in the general anticipatory fun. Pops drinks endlessly, makes wry and outlandish comments about Lulu’s skimpy garb, and offers sweetly paternal companionship to Oswaldo who seems to need it very badly. Oswaldo offers a long spiel about natural foods and the benefits for one’s well-being while Pops downs one glass of booze after the next and makes doubting comments at every turn. It’s very funny, largely due to Allen’s nuanced timing.

The script artfully reveals its dramatic fulcrum as the first act unfolds and one begins gradually to understand the relationship between the characters. The major theme involving Pops’ being pressured by the police to accept a settlement and sign a nondisclosure agreement about the attack on him by the white cop moves in stealthily on what seems, at the outset, like just a wild time among a band of unlikely housemates. This theme carries dramatic weight, but persists, through the repeated pleas of the characters of O’Connor and Caro, so deliberately that it sometimes gets weighed down at those points, in contrast with the constant hilarity of Pops’ responses to everything else around him.

When the church lady comes to the house to presumably try to get Pops to believe, all hell, so to speak, ironically breaks loose. The amazing Celeste Oliva, who can play, convincingly, a nun-like character in one breath and a vixen-like whore in the next, brings her range of capabilities vividly to this role, and she does not disappoint on either front.

As Pops, Tyrees Allen is the heart and soul of this production. He is funny as hell and keeps the one-liners coming in completely animated and loveable ways. Allen adeptly conveys Pops as someone with a strong will, a fierce mouth, an open heart, and a full-sweep of fabulous gestures and moods.

The other supporting “family” characters – Stewart Evan Smith as Junior, Octavia Chavez-Richmond as Lulu, and Alejandro Simoes as Oswaldo – all play their roles energetically and with nuanced meldings of zip and pathos.

Lewis D. Wheeler and Maureen Keiller, as the engaged cops who try to con Pops into a deal, have more pedestrian responsibilities in the play, but they dress up the roles with enough New York accent and corrupt sliminess to give them dimension.

Overall: A funny play that has an interesting internal dramatic theme that could use a bit more nuance in its development, but which presents such engaging embodiments of deeply flawed but loveable characters, with an outstanding central performance by Tyrees Allen, that easily take center stage.

– BADMan

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