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‘Between Riverside and Crazy’ a timely brew of truth, half-truths

Eamonn Walker is Pops and Lily Mojekwu is the Church Lady in Stephen Adly Guirgis' "Between Riverside and Crazy," at Steppenwolf Theatre. (Photo: Michael Brosilow)

It would be all too easy to describe the Steppenwolf Theatre production of “Between Riverside and Crazy,” Stephen Adly Guirgis’ 2015 Pulitzer Prize-winning play, as a piece of uncanny programming that fits this particular period of national upheaval like a glove.

‘Between Riverside and Crazy’
Recommended
When: Through Aug. 21
Where: Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted
Tickets: $20 – $89
Info: www.steppenwolf.org
Run time: 2 hours, with one intermission

Yes, Guirgis’ mix of hyper-reality, social commentary and sitcom appeal deals with the police, and criminals, and race, and political corruption. But more than any of that his play is about how individual character flaws shape destiny, how the quest for success and financial security can warp everyone, and how most people tend to be a mix of angel and devil at any given moment.

If this all sounds a bit messy and uneven, be assured that it is. It also can be jarringly inconsistent. But Guirgis is a writer of great Rabelaisian energy, with a gift for tapping into the humor of human frailty and desperation. He also gives actors a great deal to chew on, and the excellent Steppenwolf cast, under the shrewd direction of Yasen Peyankov, clearly feasts on the playwright’s taste for mixing absurdity with pathos.

At the center of “Between Riverside and Crazy” is “Pops” (Eamonn Walker in a wonderfully wily turn that perfectly captures his character’s charm and weaknesses). A war veteran and retired New York City police officer with 30 years on the force, he has been in poor health ever since he was shot six times by a fellow officer. Pops is black, and came up through the ranks at a time when, as he puts it, white cops hated his presence and black cops were never comfortable amongst themselves. The police officer who fired the shots at Pops was white, but without giving away too much here, the circumstances of the shooting were questionable at best, as was the use of the “n” word during the altercation. Yet that charge enabled Pops, whose shooting made headlines eight years earlier, to sue the city for big bucks. In the interim, however, the case — still unsettled because of Pops’ intransigence — has lost its heat, and might just lead to his eviction.

Audrey Francis (from left), Elena Marisa Flores, Eamonn Walker and Tim Hopper in "From Riverside to Crazy" at Steppenwolf Theatre. (Photo: Michael Brosilow)

Audrey Francis (from left), Elena Marisa Flores, Eamonn Walker and Tim Hopper in “Between Riverside to Crazy” at Steppenwolf Theatre. (Photo: Michael Brosilow)

And that is not all that is going on in Pops’ life. His wife of many decades has recently died. And his errant son, Junior (James Vincent Meredith, in a notable about-face from his recent role as Othello), seems to have picked up where he left off before serving time in prison, and is dealing stolen goods stored in a room in his father’s vast rent-controlled apartment on Riverside Drive. And that is just one of many excuses his landlord (feeding on the rapacious New York rental market) might use to reclaim Pops’ apartment.

Also taking up residence with Pops are Junior’s girlfriend, Lulu (Elena Marisa Flores in a deft mix of bubblehead and shrewd operator), who might or might not be pregnant, and Junior’s friend, Oswaldo (Victor Almanzar, winningly witty and real), an ex-con friend of Junior’s, who is trying to set things right with his real father while looking to Pops as a surrogate (and a meal ticket).

Exerting pressure on Pops from the outside are two former (white) colleagues who are about to marry: Detective O’Connor (Audrey Francis), who years earlier was a rookie mentored by Pops, and her fiance, Lieutenant Caro (Tim Hopper), an upwardly mobile guy who knows he will win big political points if he can finesse a settlement of Pops’ long-lingering lawsuit. Francis and Hopper are ideal in their subtle smarminess.

Finally, for an injection of pure urban magical realism and unbridled sex there is the Brazilian-bred Church Lady (an absolutely brilliant, award-worthy turn by Lily Mojekwu as healer and whore) who visits Pops. In a rollicking scene that mixes spiritual healing with a communion ceremony that is all about the body, Guirgis plays fast and furiously with the heretical.

Nothing and no one in this play is exactly who they appear to be, and while their motivations are fully understandable, altruism is far from the driving force. There is something of both the saint and sinner in each of them, and while much of the play stretches believability beyond the breaking point, that duality rings true.

Collette Pollard’s gargantuan two-level set suggests why this Riverside Drive apartment would be so coveted, and Natasha V. Dukich’s streetwise costumes are ideal in this play in which there are far more hustlers than heroes.

NOTE: Chicago’s Eclipse Theatre is in the midst of staging a full season of Guirgis’ plays, with “Our Lady of 121st Street” opening July 17 at the Athenaeum Theatre.

Victor Almanzar (left) and Eamonn Walker in "Between Riverside and Crazy,' at Steppenwolf Theatre. (Photo: Michael Brosilow)

Victor Almanzar (left) and Eamonn Walker in “Between Riverside and Crazy,’ at Steppenwolf Theatre. (Photo: Michael Brosilow)