Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s production of the Pulitzer-Prize-winning “Between Riverside and Crazy” comes on the heels of the recent police shootings and couldn’t be more relevant to our time but also comes with twists that keep your mouth open.
This play focuses on Pops, a former NYPD officer who years before the play takes place was shot six times while off duty by a white police officer. Now off the force, Pops lives in a rent-controlled apartment with his law-defying son Junior, Junior’s girlfriend Lulu, and Junior’s recovering addict friend Oswaldo.
Laughter reigns when these three characters are interacting in the apartment even in the midst of arguments. Eamonn Walker, who plays Pops, Elena Marisa Flores, who plays Lulu, and Victor Almanzar, who plays Oswaldo, are excellent in making these characters feel real, so much that you feel like an intruder in their very private conversations. When they argue and conflict arises don’t be surprised if you’re internally torn and wishing they could just find peace.
While the humor makes you feel warm, it’s when Tim Hopper, as Lieutenant Caro, and Audrey Francis, as Detective O’Connor, show up for what starts as a friendly dinner where the temperature shifts. Working as mediators and messengers Caro and O’Connor let Pops know that the NYPD is threatening to take his home and lean on his son if he doesn’t settle with the department. This is where you learn that apparently Pops only crime was being extremely drunk in a bar that is frequented by felons and prostitutes, and he insists that the white officer called him a racial slur.
At this point “Between Riverside and Crazy” feels like the special episode of “Family Matters” that you actually needed to see where it doesn’t dilute real world issues but shoves it in your face. Watching this play mere days after events in Baton Rouge, Minnesota, and Dallas your mind doesn’t separate the real world from the stage. I actually found myself holding back from screaming at O’Connor who makes the beyond-insulting argument that being drunk at a bar that is frequented by felons is enough to get shot six times. The acting is that good for it to feel like your around the dining room table too.
When you hit the second act is when you realize this is a play. Certain situations have that deus-ex-machina-feel that only exists in theater. It continues to make you laugh and tug at your heart, but when you’ve already linked it so closely to real life your mind will start demanding the justice you rarely see in the real world. Depending on what you consider justice, you might not find it in this play. You will leave with questions, which is good for discussion both external and internal. Can you buy dignity with a home or a wedding ring, and will that come with true peace? “Between Riverside and Crazy” won’t answer that for you, but it’s good that it asks.
“Between Riverside and Crazy” is playing at the Steppenwolf Theatre Company, 1650 N. Halsted St., through Aug. 21. For tickets and more information visit steppenwolf.org/tickets–events/seasons/201516/between-riverside-and-crazy.