GableStage's Joseph Adler has made a career of producing shows about the multilayered complexities of the human experience. And no playwright portrays the dark, flawed mosaic of what makes people tick quite like Stephen Adly Guirgis. His 2015 Pulitzer Prize-winning Between Riverside and Crazy, which opens at GableStage at the Biltmore this Friday, is steeped in typical Guirgis complexities, plus a dash of irreverence, a hallmark of his work. Adler's team has tackled Guirgis productions in the past, such as in 2012, when GableStage put on a production of the uproarious and disquieting Motherfucker With the Hat.
But Between Riverside promises to be much more unsettling, not only in plot and theme but also in character arch. Whereas Motherfucker With the Hat dealt with relationships and moral ambiguities, Between Riverside dives headlong into a subject we read about too often: the unprovoked shooting of black citizens by seemingly racist white cops. And that's only the tip of the iceberg.
"I think everything Guirgis writes and puts out is important and relevant to the times," Adler says. "There's something about the quality of his writing and the insight he has on people that is quite unique. He gives his characters room to do things that are oftentimes very unpredictable."
At the center of the play is the hard-drinking, disabled African-American widower Pops — a retired New York City Police officer living in a small apartment on NYC's Riverside Drive. His son, Junior, who was recently released from jail, is always hanging around the place, as is the young man's weed-loving girlfriend, Lulu, and drug-addict pal, Oswald. The three seem to exist only to mooch off Pops during his last remaining years, even while Junior has pledged to shun his life of crime and turn things around for himself. For his part, Pops is holding onto what to do about a long-standing lawsuit against his former employer, the NYPD, and is dealing with the challenge of possibly being evicted from his rent-controlled apartment. Pops' former partner on the force, meanwhile, is trying to persuade the old man to settle his lawsuit. Pops, it turns out, was in a bar the night a white rookie cop entered and, as Guirgis puts it, "shot everything black in the whole joint and somehow didn't hit anything white." A bullet ended Pops' career and put him in a wheelchair.
It's not difficult to find the parallels between Pops' life and the climate of our times. Racism, addiction, gentrification, and the cyclical nature of criminality are all present here, with Guirgis' usual touch of the sardonic. Pops is a curmudgeon with an edge that seems equal parts Fred Sanford and wise yogi — a complicated old man whose experiences inform his convictions but who is also riddled with contradictions. His former employer is the embodiment of the immutable nature of the powers-that-be trying to sweep things under the rug. Junior and his friends, meanwhile, are joy-sucking ingrates who only serve to exasperate an elderly man who simply wants to be left alone with his thoughts and his booze.
"Guirgis has an amazing ability to deal with difficult situations and characters and find humor in it all," Adler says. "The situations and the way the characters deal with it all hits you in the heart, and hits you in the head. It makes you laugh, and hopefully, it makes you feel empathy."
Between Riverside and Crazy, which is steeped in Guirgis' signature razor-sharp banter, raunchy situations, and controversial plot devices, is a tragedy wrapped in a comedy, particularly in how it grapples with the difficult subject matter of a white police officer's shooting of African-Americans. In this case, one of the victims is not only black but also a police officer. And the choices Pops faces are not easy, though on the surface one would think they are. After all, he's dealing with black-and-white issues, literally and figuratively.
"Pops is from a world that is extremely racist, one that affects him enormously," Adler says. "I think we can all agree that, while there have been improvements in that area during our lifetime, we have a long way to go. And that's where Guirgis really shines here, because, as he shows us through this play, no one is more aware of that long road ahead than Pops."
As it is with most of Guirgis' plays, the characters in Between Riverside and Crazy are complex and polarizing. It's just as easy to root for them as it is to dislike them altogether. Yet as the play unfolds, it's hard to pull away from wondering what fate awaits each. "That's what makes them so human," Adler adds. "The paradoxes that exist in the action in the play are what make these characters so vivid."
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Those paradoxes clash rather strikingly when Pops is faced with some tough choices, all while shining a light on some very relevant and troublesome subject matters. And Guirgis, it seems, has mastered the art of nailing the subject matter through flawless realism and humor.
Adler, who has been eager to stage Between Riverside and Crazy since it debuted off-Broadway at the Atlantic Theater Company in 2014, promises it features plot twists that viewers won't see coming.
"This play will have some surprises for the audience," he says enthusiastically. "The way some of the characters act is very unpredictable, because, in reality, people in general are unpredictable. Guirgis' plays always resonate with me. The plot, the characters, the situations stay with me. This play will stay with audiences, believe me."
Between Riverside and Crazy
Saturday, January 21, through February 19, Thursdays through Sundays, at GableStage at the Biltmore, 1200 Anastasia Ave., Coral Gables; 305-445-1119; gablestage.org. Tickets start at $42.