‘Riverside’ kicks off ACT season brilliantly

Carl Lumbly, far left, heads up a terrific cast, including Lakin Valdez, center, and Samuel Ray Gates. in American Conservatory Theater’s stellar production of “Between Riverside and Crazy.” (Courtesy Kevin Berne}

If the new American Conservatory Theater production of “Between Riverside and Crazy” is any indication, it’s going to be a very good season for The City’s flagship theater company.

Bracingly funny and brilliantly cast, Stephen Adly Guirgis’ comedy, a 2015 Pulitzer Prize-winner, yielded one of the most exhilarating opening night performances seen on Bay Area stages in recent memory.

That’s not a total surprise for anyone familiar with Guirgis works such as “Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train” and “The Motherf***er With the Hat.” The New York-based playwright melds gritty realism with a poetic sensibility, and his characters are always somewhere near the edge.

Walter “Pops” Washington, a retired New York City cop, may be his most compelling creation to date. Pops lives in a rent-controlled apartment on Riverside Drive, but don’t let the swanky address fool you. He’s as careworn as the place, which looks like it hasn’t been cleaned since his wife died the previous year (Irene Lewis’ briskly paced production makes excellent use of Chris Barreca’s grimy set.)

Pops is about to be evicted, and the lawsuit he filed against City Hall — he was shot six times by a white cop, an incident he claims was racially motivated — has languished for eight years. His son, Junior (Samuel Ray Gates) is running a brisk business in stolen goods from a back bedroom, and Junior’s possibly pregnant girlfriend, Lulu (Elia Monte-Brown), has moved in. Oswaldo (Lakin Valdez), the recovering addict Pops is trying to mentor, makes his own demands.

The temperature rises with the arrival of Pops’ former partner (Stacy Ross as Audrey) and her fiancé (Gabriel Marin as Caro), who press him to settle the lawsuit, and a Church Lady (Catherine Castellanos), aiming to save his soul.

That’s enough hot-button issues – police shootings, racial bias, gentrification and substance abuse – to fill several plays. But Guirgis is more interested in uncovering psychological truths, and the ways his characters use language to obscure them.

Carl Lumbly, best-known as a screen actor, has become a treasured presence on the Bay Area theater scene in recent years, and as Pops, he simply hits it out of the park, nailing the irascible, hard-drinking character’s comic scenes and rising to a performance of heroic stature.

Lewis gets the best from the supporting cast, with Valdez’s volatile Oswaldo, Marin’s bellicose Caro, Monte-Brown’s hilarious Lulu, and Castellanos’ powerhouse Church Lady the standouts. Guirgis keeps delivering plot twists at well-timed intervals right up to the end; “Between Riverside and Crazy” walks a line between comedy and pathos, and the intersection proves fertile ground.


Between Riverside and Crazy
Presented by American Conservatory Theater
Where: Geary Theater, 415 Geary St., S,F.
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays, Thursdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Wednesdays and Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays; closes Sept. 27
Tickets: $20 to $100
Contact: {415) 749-2228, www.act-sf.org

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