ARThound

Geneva Anderson digs into art

Review: ACT’s sensational season opener, 2015 Pulitzer winner “Between Riverside and Crazy”

Walter “Pops” Washington (Carl Lumbly, left) argues with his son, Junior (Samuel Ray Gates, right), while Oswaldo (Lakin Valdez, center) reads the newspaper in Stephen Adly Guirgis’s Pulitzer Prize–winning dark comedy,

Walter “Pops” Washington (Carl Lumbly, left) argues with his son, Junior (Samuel Ray Gates, right), while Oswaldo (Lakin Valdez, center) reads the newspaper in Stephen Adly Guirgis’s Pulitzer Prize–winning dark comedy, “Between Riverside and Crazy,” at American Conservatory Theater (ACT) through September 27, 2015. Photo by Kevin Berne

Everything clicked Wednesday evening at ACT (American Conservatory Theater) which opened its 2015-6 season with Stephen Adly Guirgis’ Between Riverside and Crazy, the 2015 Pulitzer Prize winner for drama.  Drawn from real life, the story, which had the audience laughing all night with its biting dialogue and superb acting, captures a dark period in the life of ex-NYC cop and recent widower Walter “Pops” Washington, marvel Carl Lumbly.   “Pops” has a full set of problems which are only compounded by the company of ne’er-do-wells surrounding him.  He is trying to stave off eviction from his gigantic rent stabilized apartment on Riverside Drive while he waits for a hefty settlement from a racial discrimination suit he filed against NYPD 8 years back.  He’s also keeping tabs on Junior, his newly-paroled son (Samuel Ray Gates) who seems to be using the apartment for fencing stolen goods and who has moved his girlfriend, Lulu (Elia Monte-Brown), in, who might be a hooker.  Oswaldo (Lakin Valdez), an addict in recovery, is another questionable houseguest.  It’s no wonder that Pops is drinking.

While the entire cast is superb, Carl Lumbly, “Pops,” who hails from Berkley, is the glue that holds this superbly measured tragic-comedy together.  He has that wonderful sense of ease on stage that allows him to completely embody a character and to relate genuinely to everyone.

Carl Lumbly stars as Walter “Pops” Washington in Stephen Adly Guirgis’

Carl Lumbly stars as Walter “Pops” Washington in Stephen Adly Guirgis’ “Between Riverside and Crazy.” Photo by Kevin Berne

Lumbly, garnered national attention as NYPD Detective Marcus Petrie on the CBS police drama Cagney & Lacey and as CIA Agent Marcus Dixon on the ABC espionage drama series Alias, is well known for his remarkable theatrical performances.  In 2013, at San Francisco Playhouse he played the lead character in Stephen Adly Guirgis’ tragicomedy, The Motherf**ker with the Hat, along with Gabriel Marin, who plays a police detective in this play.

As with so many plays drawn from controversial real-life events, perspective is everything and the brilliance of this Guirgis play is that it shrewdly limits itself to a few perspectives, ensuring that we learn everything about Pops and his past from either Pops or the two white NYPD detectives (his former partner (Stacey Ross) and her fiancé (Gabriel Marin) who come calling to try and dissuade him from pursuing his lawsuit against the NYPD.

The crux of the play is that Pops, confined to a wheelchair, has been seething in anger for years over being shot and has been finding consolation in a bottle.  He believes his shooting was a racially motivated crime rather than an accident and he wants “justice” and has held out for 8 years hoping for recognition that his civil rights were violated.  It’s very easy to fall for Pops and into his mindset.  As time passes, however, we learn that, in order to receive a more lucrative settlement, he embellished his story saying that the white cop that shot him called him “nigger” and we learn that, on the evening he was shot, he was off duty at a seedy bar and didn’t identify himself as police officer and his blood alcohol level was very high.  That seems to change everything, or does it?  Guirgis, who based the play on an actual shooting that happened in 1994, is exploring the limits of truth and the race factor.

How do we decide who to believe in a shooting that is tainted with claims of racial motivation? Pops may have been lying when he said the cop who shot him called a name, but it is also possible that the cop was motivated by an implicit bias, which is almost impossible to prove.

The domestic chaos in the household seems a perfect accompaniment for Pops’ inner turmoil and one of the pleasures of Between Riverside and Crazy is Guirgis’ vivid contemplation of character.  Guirgis has long had a fascination with strugglers, strivers, misfits and perennial outsiders and they all come together in this crumbling apartment─each a slave to some form of self-destruction and each with a cover story that cracks as time passes. The push-pull drama is funny, sad and believable.

The Church Lady (Catherine Castellanos) prays for Walter “Pops” Washington (Carl Lumbly, left) in Stephen Adly Guirgis’ Pulitzer Prize–winning dark comedy,

The Church Lady (Catherine Castellanos) prays for Walter “Pops” Washington (Carl Lumbly, left) in Stephen Adly Guirgis’ Pulitzer Prize–winning dark comedy, “Between Riverside and Crazy”. Photo by Kevin Berne

We first meet well-meaning Oswaldo (Lakin Valdez), a junkie who is committed to rehabilitation but slips up.  His affection for Pops in Act 1 is palpable. His colorful riff on eating healthy which involves a diet of fresh organic raw almonds instead of Ring Dings with baloney and Fanta Grape unfolds like poetry. When Pop’s son’s fiancé, Lulu (Elia Monte-Brown), waltzes into the kitchen in short shorts and tries to wrap Pops around her finger, sweetness delivered in a Hispanic Brooklyn accent, we just know she’s trouble and not really studying accounting.  And Pop’s parolee son, Junior (Chris Butler), with whom he seems to have a strained relationship, purports to be walking the straight and narrow but his partying and strange comings and goings lead us to suspect he’s up to no good.  And then there’s the dynamic seductress “Church Lady” (Catherine Castellanos) who delivers a “Spiritual treatment” that sends Pops straight into cardiac arrest.

And Gabriel Marin, as Lt. Caro has a wonderful stage presence.  Seeing him again on stage with Lumbly, after their pairings at SF Playhouse (The Motherf**ker with the Hat (2013), Storefront Church (2013),  Jesus Hopped the “A” Train (2007)) makes me realize how magical their chemistry is.

All the action takes place in the confines of the kitchen and living room, essentially one large set, masterfully designed by Chris Barreca.  The space evokes the fading grandeur of those magical old large Riverside apartments from the era when middle class workers in New York really had some space.  Pops’ wife has passed recently so the place looks neglected with its ratty appliances, distressed cabinets and old linoleum but it’s got very good bones.

Director Irene Lewis’ pacing of this two hour play is near perfect with the first part devoted to Pops’ extended dysfunctional family and the second, a life-altering visit from Church Lady, revelations about his lawsuit, and an unexpected ending.

Carl Lumbly on playing “Pops”─ Pops has had to walk a hard line, and as a black man of his time, growing up and making the choice to become a police officer—perhaps in a neighborhood in which most people went a completely different way—was a complex decision.  As his career went on, I believe he saw some things that made him proud of having made that choice.  But over time, being tossed up against the serrated edge of reality that operates in situations where people are acting out of desperation, he saw some pretty awful forms of human behavior, in perpetrators and criminals as well as in the system of justice that gets applied to hold them in check. …Because he doesn’t have legitimate power any longer, illegitimate power achieved by lies in the face of unfairness doesn’t feel like the worst strategy.

Written by Stephen Adly Guirgis.  Directed by Irene Lewis

Cast: Chris Butler (Junior), Catherine Castellanos (Church Lady), Carl Lumbly (Walter “Pops” Washington), Gabriel Marin (Lieutenant Caro), Elia Monte-Brown (Lulu), Stacey Ross (Detective O’Conner), and Lakin Valdez (Oswaldo)

Creative Team: Chris Barreca (set design), Seth Resier (lighting design), Candice Donnelly (costume design), Leon Rothenberg (sound design)

Run-time: 2 hours, plus one 15-minute intermission

Details: Between Riverside and Crazy runs through September 27, 2015 at American Conservatory Theater, 405 Geary Street, San Francisco.  Performances are 8 p.m. most Tuesdays-Fridays; 2 and 8 p.m. most Wednesdays and Saturdays; and 2 p.m. most Sundays. Tickets: $25 to $125, phone 415.749.2228, or visit www.act-sf.org.

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September 15, 2015 Posted by | Theater | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Storefront Church,” John Patrick Shanley’s new play, finishes his Church-State trilogy with a hard-edged look at the mortgage crisis, greed, and redemption—at San Francisco Playhouse through January 11, 2014

Gloria Weinstock (center) is kindhearted Jesse in “Storefront Church” at San Francisco Playhouse.  Her financial woes become significant when she “rents” the ground floor of a store front to Chester, an impoverished Pentecostal preacher whose church was destroyed in the Katrina hurricane.  In Chester’s three months of occupancy, he has not paid Jessie and she has financed all the “upgrades” to the church by taking out a second mortgage.  Her husband Ethan (Ray Reinhardt) (left) goes to bat for her at the bank and she asks Donaldo (Gabriel Marin) (right), the Bronx Borough president, and her best friend’s son to assist her.

Gloria Weinstock (center) is kindhearted Jesse in “Storefront Church” at San Francisco Playhouse. Her financial woes become significant when she “rents” the ground floor of a store front to Chester, an impoverished Pentecostal preacher whose church was destroyed in the Katrina hurricane. In Chester’s three months of occupancy, he has not paid Jessie and she has financed all the “upgrades” to the church by taking out a second mortgage. Facing foreclosure, her husband Ethan (Ray Reinhardt) (left) goes to bat for her at the bank and she asks Donaldo (Gabriel Marin) (right), the Bronx Borough president, and her best friend’s son to assist her. Photo: Jessica Palopoli

Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright John Patrick Shanley’s new play Storefront Church, at San Francisco Playhouse, transports the audience to a wintery Bronx, where a disenchanted and broke preacher has lost his faith while trying to start over in New York after his New Orleans church was washed away by Katrina.  His Latina landlady, Jesse, has taken out a second mortgage trying to help him pay for the renovation of the storefront church.  Her Jewish husband, Ethan, a retired tax accountant, pays a visit to an unsympathetic loan officer at the bank that is about to foreclose on her.  Donaldo, the Bronx Borough president, who has known Jessie since his childhood tries to intervene and the bank’s CEO seizes the moment to enlist borough support for a new mall he hopes to finance.  It sounds dismal but it all ends on a hopeful note— the preacher conquers his despair enough to deliver a sermon; the characters reconnect with their faith; Jesse gets to keep her property; the mall is given the green light with a percentage of the space allocated for community use.

In 2005, Shanley won a Pulitzer Prize in drama and a Tony Award for best play for “Doubt” in which a strict nun accuses a highly respected priest of being sexually inappropriate with one of the school students under her charge. “Doubt” was the first in Shanley’s trilogy of Church and State plays; the second play, “Defiance,” from 2006, explored racism and the disunity it caused aboard Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune in North Carolina as the Vietnam War was winding down.  “Storefront Church is an exploration of contemporary society’s lack of faith and of the plight of the individual striving to survive in a world dominated by corporate greed.

Money, money, money, faith and the borough. Pastor Chester (Carl Lumbly) and Borough President (Gabriel Marin), the son of a Latino storefront preacher, have a fateful and intense meeting over church vs. mortgage.  Both men have lost their faith.  Photo: Jessica Palopoli.

Money, money, money, faith and the borough. Pastor Chester (Carl Lumbly) and Borough President (Gabriel Marin), the son of a Latino storefront preacher, have a fateful and intense meeting over church vs. mortgage. Both men have lost their faith. Photo: Jessica Palopoli.

While “Storefront Church” is less powerful than the other two plays in the triad, it is a moving portrait of our troubling times, when one’s convictions and sense of self are under constant siege and achieving and maintaining financial security is a game few succeed at.  In order to cover overarching themes, Shanley sacrifices character development resulting in some confusion about back stories and relationships.  Director Joy Carlin has assembled a talented cast— popular Bay Area actors Derek Fischer (CEO of the bank), Rod Gnapp (bank loan officer), Carl Lumbly (Pastor Chester), Gabriel Marin (Borough President), Ray Reinheart (Ethan, Jesse’s husband), and Gloria Weinstock (Jesse).  As usual, San Francisco Playhouse’s staging is impeccable.

Stay-tuned to San Francisco Playhouse…Director Bill English says their next play, Jez Butterworth’s “Jerusalem,” (January 21-March 8), is “probably the best play written in the 21st century so far.”  I’ve come to trust Bill English…he serves us our moral peas and carrots in the most interesting dishes.  He promises that the San Francisco Playhouse’s production will be the “first American” production of the play that earned raves at London’s Royal Court in 2009.  It makes frequent allusions to Blake’s poem from which its title is derived.

Details: Storefront Church ends Saturday, January 11, 2014.  San Francisco Playhouse is located at 450 Post Street (2nd Floor of Kensington Park Hotel, b/n Powell & Mason)  Performances: Tuesday to Thursday 7pm, Friday and Saturday 8pm. Matinees: 3pm Saturdays; 2pm Sunday on 1.5.14   Tickets: $30-$100.  For more information visit www.sfplayhouse.org  or call the box office at (415) 677-9596.

January 7, 2014 Posted by | Theatre | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Review: SF Playhouse’s small production of “My Fair Lady” feels like a GIANT success—I could have danced all night!—through September 29, 2012

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The SF Playhouse closes its 9th season with  My Fair Lady, like you never seen it before!  Artistic Director Bill English has taken this classic Broadway musical by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe based on Pygmalion and worked his magic once again—reinventing it as a sexy new production that feels perfect for SF Playhouse’s intimate stage.  By stripping the show to its core, and casting much younger actors as Higgins and Pickering, as well as a street tough Eliza, the power, brilliance and humor of Shaw’s original pour forth with palpable romantic heat.   Performed by an amazing cast of 11with two pianos, this small production, which opened Saturday, is a giant hit.  It’s wonderfully executed score of well-loved favorites— “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly,” “Little Bit of Luck,” “The Rain in Spain,” “I Could Have Danced All Night,” “Get Me to the Church on Time” and “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face”—will have you singing all the way home.

The talented Johnny Moreno, who resembles Robert Downey Jr., is most definitely not Rex Harrison—he’s young, sexy, passionate, and brings his own brand of complexity to phonetics specialist Henry Higgins.  From the very start, he’s a show–off.  He can’t wait to impress Colonel Pickering (Richard Frederick) with his keen ability to tell where people are from by the sound of their voice and he can mimic them admirably too.  When he says he can turn a flower girl into a duchess, we can’t help but be intrigued.  The palpable chemistry between Moreno and Monique Hafen (Eliza) adds sizzle to the production.  By the second act, Higgins has shown us a little too much of his control tactics, treating poor Eliza like his little minion and from there on, the bundle of contradictions that Moreno brings to the self absorbed Higgins are captivating and feel absolutely authentic.  He knows he’s a jerk but he’s sitting pretty in the power seat until he is thrown a kilter by the unexpected emotions Eliza’s stirred.

Catch the loverly Monique Hafen now—as Eliza Doolittle, she’s edgy, vulnerable, sensual and extraordinary as the feisty poor girl/street urchin with a heart of gold.  This role suits her to a T, and Bill English has made sure her marvelous voice and dancing ability are showcased cleverly.  By the time the final act rolls around, we’re solidly in Eliza’s camp.

The experience is enhanced by the intimacy of the playhouse itself— it seats 100 with a few beams here and there— and has a very small stage on which miraculous things almost always occur.  For My Fair Lady, pianists Greg Mason and David Dobrusky, not visible to the audience, sit at opposite ends of the theatre and sweep you away in lush melodic rhapsody.  On October 13, 2012, SF Playhouse will open its 10th season in a new larger theatre (225) seats at 225 Post Street.  I hope they can re-create the special magic of all the treasured productions they launched from this space.

Run time: Two hours and 45 minutes with a 15-minute intermission.

Adapted from George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion written in 1912 and Gabriel Pascal’s motion picture Pygmalion from 1938. Book and lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner and music by Frederick Loewe.

Production Team:  Directed by Bill English. Set Design by Nina Ball. Musical Direction by Greg Mason. Choreography by Kimberly Richards. Pianists Greg Mason and David Dobrusky.

Cast: Monique Hafen (Eliza Doolittle), Johnny Moreno (Henry Higgins), Richard Frederick (Colonel Pickering), Charles Dean (Alfred P. Doolittle), Karen Hirst (Mrs. Higgins/Mrs. Pearce), Justin Gillman (Freddy Eynsford-Hill) and an ensemble of Luke Chapman, Mandy Khoshnevisan, Kenneth McPherson, Randy Nazarian, and Corinne Proctor.

ARThound likes what Bill English, SF Playhouse’s Artistic Director, has to say about George Bernard Shaw:  “Shaw, like (Henry) Higgins, was a revolutionary, determined to change the social inequities of his time.  When Pygmalion opened, it terrified the wealthy ruling class. The differences in speech were how they kept the poor in their place. The idea that changing the way someone pronounced the word ‘rain’ could alter their social station was subversive and revolutionary. As Higgins puts it, he was passionately determined to lessen the ‘gulf separating class from class, and soul from soul’ by changing the way people speak.” (quoted from the program)

Thirsty Thursdays: The SF Playhouse now offers exclusive events in conjunction with its shows. Thirsty Thursday is August 9, 2012.  Join young professionals and socialize pre-show

while enjoying $1 beer, soda and pizza, great music, and a specially-discounted ticket.

Details:  My Fair Lady runs through September 29, 2012.  Shows are Tues/Wed/Thurs. 7 p.m., Friday & Saturday 8 p.m., plus Saturdays 3 p.m. SF Playhouse is located at 533 Sutter Street (two blocks from Union Square, between Powell & Mason Streets) in San Francisco.  Tickets are $30 to $70.  For more information or to purchase tickets, go to www.sfplayhouse.org. or phone the box office at 415-677-9596.  Parking is $1/hour after 6 p.m. through the end of July at the Sutter/Stockton Garage, which is two blocks from the theatre.

July 20, 2012 Posted by | Theatre | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment