With their backs to the wall, creative artists are struggling to come to terms with the forces of gentrification that are altering their lives beyond recognition. So, in a sense, it's no surprise to find a playwright wrestling with this subject, which after all, touches many of them personally. On the other hand, probably
due to the complexities of the issues surrounding rent control, eviction proceedings, social engineering, city corruption, etc., there haven't been many attempts. That's why Between Riverside and Crazy, a new play by the Atlantic Theatre Company, represents a real act of courage by playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis. Handily defeating the dark, depressing nature of the subject matter, the play was hilariously funny, poignant, and infinitely enjoyable. Clocking in at just under two hours, the time went by in a flash. After the intermission, as an attempt is made to move the plot forward, the play becomes both less funny and less believable at the same time. However, the first act alone is well worth the price of admission.
The play opens in the kitchen of the rent stabilized apartment of the main character, "Pops," an elderly retired cop played by Stephen McKinley Henderson. Having lost his wife a year ago, Pops is in poor health, he drinks a lot, and he's fallen prey to his middle-aged son and his son's no-account friends, an air-headed prostitute and a drug-addled thug who live in the apartment rent-free. Ominously, Pops has been ignoring court summonses from his landlord. To further complicate matters, Pops's old NYPD partner and her corrupt upper-brass fiancé arrive to try to talk Pops into accepting a settlement in his lawsuit against the city. For Pops, it turns out, was disabled when a white cop, in an apparently racist incident, shot him in a bar eight years before.
The actors are uniformly good, especially Stephen McKinley Henderson who, as Pops, an irascible, Fred Sanford-like old curmudgeon, ranges from mirth to righteous anger, dominating the play seemingly effortlessly--scarcely moving from his dead wife's wheelchair--and is a joy to behold. Hopefully we'll be seeing a lot more of him. Michael Rispoli, of Sopranos fame, gave a typically fine performance. Victor Almanzar as Oswaldo the confused drug addict, and Rosal Colon as the chipper, dippy prostitute, also excelled in their roles.
The set, by designer Walt Spangler, is impressive: with the high ceilings, the ornate moldings, the tubular steel table and chairs, the accumulation of bric-a-brac, it really looked like an old pre-war apartment that someone had been living in for decades. My favorite touch is the apparently authentic glass-fronted art deco kitchen cabinets.
One of my few quibbles with the play is that, while admittedly still in previews, the plot is a bit convoluted, requiring some contortionists tricks at the end to pull all the elements together and then to tie up the loose ends. The reasons for Pops's eviction aren't really well spelled out, either. It's suggested that he is being accused of violating the terms of his lease by harboring criminals engaged in shady enterprises--but whether this would be enough to evict an elderly, disabled former cop from a rent stabilized apartment that he had occupied for three decades, is open to debate. There's also a few vague hints that the police, who want Pops to settle his lawsuit, may be colluding with the landlord in some way. And maybe that happens sometimes. But they'd also have to fix things with the courts and the various housing agencies. The logic of gentrification and eviction sometimes seems so arbitrary, so unfair, and so counterproductive and absurd that, for anyone not well up on the issues, it probably does just seem like it's all controlled by the fiat of "The City"--or by some vast conspiracy of corrupt politicians and greedy developers.
In any event, everyone who cares about the state of our nation's great cities, and in particular New York, should see this play, if for no other reason than to laugh in order to keep from crying.
Opening July 31, 2014.
Limited Engagement through August 16, 2014
Atlantic Theater Company at the Linda Gross Theater (336 West 20th Street)