Just like at Spindletop, 4th Wall Theatre Company has struck oil. Hell, forget oil, they've struck gold!
With this glistening production of Stephen Adly Guirgis' Between Riverside and Crazy (2014), 4th Wall bursts into the best-of-the-best. What a glorious time at the theater – explosive, funny, gritty, true.
Playwright Guirgis needs no help from me. He won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Drama for this work, and a slew of awards for his other astonishing dramas: Jesus Hopped the A-Train, Our Lady of 121st Street, The Last Days of Judas Iscariot, The Motherfucker With the Hat – fortunately all given 4-star productions during past Houston seasons.
I don't think there's another contemporary playwright who so encompasses and empathizes with the down-and-outs, those who live on the edge, those who barely survive under society's radar. Meth addicts, druggies, prostitutes, petty criminals, Guirgis' protagonists battle the system as much as they battle each other and, ultimately, themselves.
In decades to come, his work will be as valuable as O'Neill, Albee, Ibsen, Shaw. His voice is unique, joyously of the street, raw, unfiltered. He finds grand poetry in the gutter. He enlarges his characters no matter where they dwell. They're not like us, not outwardly, but their hopes and desires are ours. Their needs are the same, their dreams, their hunger for love and family. Whatever their faults, Guirgis supplies the halos. Whether his people wear them well is up to them. Usually they slip and choke them.
My uncle Paul, Mom's oldest brother, after he moved out of Nana's home in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, lived his entire life in NYC. I found him mysterious, slightly dangerous, and absolutely intriguing. He'd wear pinstripes, a jaunty fedora, and saddle shoes. He didn't visit often when I was a kid, but when he appeared he was, to me, the classic Damon Runyon archetype. I never knew what he did in the Big Apple – I still don't – but I always assumed he was into card sharking, OTB, or was a minor goodfella. Any of those occupations would have suited him, or my fantasies about him. I really liked him. For god's sake, he lived in NYC – the golden Eden of my youth.
He lived on Riverside Drive. Not in the swanky Zabar's neighborhood of the ‘70s or ‘80s, but in an unswanky rent-controlled prewar apartment in the 100s, just like Pops Washington (a brilliant Bryon Jaquet). The place was mammoth, a warren of rooms and endless hallways. I stayed with him and Aunt Essie during a summer when I was looking for an apartment while at NY University, and when I saw Ryan McGettigan's paint-peeled walls, stained linoleum-floors, and worn vinyl-clad kitchen chairs, I was instantly transported to that dreamy NYC summer I spent with Uncle Paul and Aunt Essie. I met Guirgis's low-rent characters in the decrepit elevator. I felt grown-up, a little frightened, yet buoyed by the presence of these portraits out of Hogarth. How I loved that summer.
Guirgis loves his oddballs, too. They may do awful things while drunk or high, but underneath they cry out to be loved, or at least understood.
Widower Pops, a former beat cop who's on disability after a white cop shot him, is about to lose his Riverside apartment. It's been eight years since the shooting, and Pops isn't giving up his discriminatory lawsuit against the city. He wants justice. Nothing else. The cop shot him six times intentionally, so he says – and we believe him – shouting racial epithets while he did so. His son Junior (Joseph “Joe P.” Palmore), a reformed petty criminal, lives with him to nurse him after Mom died. Junior's girlfriend Lulu (Briana Resa), not the brightest penny in the box, who may or may not be pregnant, lives there too. Junior's friend Oswaldo (Juan Sebastián Cruz, in an eye-opening 4th Wall debut), a former addict and now a health nut, lives here as a “guest.” He's got issues with his absent father, and calls Pops “Dad,” as if to smooth over his rutted life.
Pops' former partner Audrey (Kim Tobin-Lehl) and her police lieutenant fiancé Caro (Philip Lehl) wheedle into the story, obviously sent there by their superiors to coax Pops into a settlement. Their own interpersonal battles are laughingly detailed with sly glances and grumpy double takes. Pops, though, will not be fooled, or coaxed. He knows what he wants and he will get it.
A health care practitioner, the Church Lady (a delightfully loopy Pamela Vogel), anxious to get him to take communion, brings Pops to a “happy ending.” Catholics might not by happy at how the wafer is transferred, or the sex involved, but Pops is. We are too, it's the best scene in the play.
There are many surprises throughout, little joys of pacing and blocking that bring this shaggy-dog tale to life. Director Bill Pruitt (a multiple Emmy Award-winning producer for The Amazing Race) directed Tobin-Lehl in NYC in Sam Shepard's A Lie of the Mind, and she brought him to Houston. Come back soon. This is exemplary work.
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Everyone backstage does exemplary work. Christina Giannelli's lighting is first-class, as usual; McGettigan's design is top-notch, as usual; Robert Leslie Meek's sound design is cutting-edge rap; and Cherie Acosta's costumes, from Pops' ratty bathrobe to Oswaldo's torn jeans, is just right. These people wouldn't wear anything else.
Guirgis burrows into his characters. He knows them deeply, shows them with all faults, and loves them anyway. The ending is so satisfying we weep with joy. Pops goes wandering, free at last. Guirgis blesses him. Just like he blesses us.
Bless you, 4th Wall.
Between Riverside and Crazy continues through April 4 at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays; and 3 p.m. Sundays. Studio 101, Spring Street Studios, 1824 Spring Street. For information, call 832-786-1849 or visit 4thwalltheatreco.com $17-$53.