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

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