Coal Mine Theatre mounts an international roster of plays, usually from the United States and Britain. As a result, we get to see the best of the best from abroad, and American playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis is certainly considered top of the line. We’ve been lucky in town to see a few of his scintillating plays, so Guirgis’ 2015 Pulitzer Prize winner, Between Riverside and Crazy, should have been perfect Coal Mine fare. Alas, the play is not for all markets.
The plot concerns Walter “Pops” Washington (Alexander Thomas), a retired, Black New York City policeman who lives in a rent controlled apartment on Riverside Drive on the Upper West Side. He is currently fighting a two-front war, the first against his landlord who wants him out, and the second against the New York City Police Department. In the latter case, the lawsuit has dragged on for eight years, and Pops is demanding compensation because he was accidentally shot by a rookie White officer who also used the N-word. That officer was disciplined, but Pops wants damages, and has rejected all offers to date.
Pops, whose wife Dolores has recently died, has three lodgers in the apartment. His son Junior (Jai Jai Jones) has just got out of jail, and has a string of convictions for dealing in stolen goods. Junior’s current girlfriend Lulu (Zarrin Darnell-Martin) is also a housemate and has just declared that she is pregnant. She has a questionable past. And then there is Oswaldo (Nabil Rajo), a friend of Junior’s who is a recovering addict, and who has also done jail time.
There are three White people in the play. Det. Audrey O’Connor (Claire Armstrong) is Pops’ former partner. Her fiancé is Lt. David Caro (Sergio Di Zio). The two visit Pops because Audrey wants him to walk her down the aisle. The two also have an ulterior motive for the visit. Caro is representing the police department in a bid to get Pops to finally settle the lawsuit, and he has come armed with items to sweeten the deal. And then there is the visiting Church Lady (Allegra Fulton) who has an agenda of her own.
What follows is a play about revelations. We keep finding out more and more information about Pops’ shooting accident. We learn more about the problems between Junior and his father, and Junior and Lulu. We also gather information about Pops’ relationship with his late wife. Oswaldo turns out to be full of surprises, as does Church Lady. Coal Mine has provided a program note on Magic Realism to explain some of the more fanciful incidents in the play, and that is just one area where Guirgis runs aground.
In awarding Guirgis the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, the committee cited “a nuanaced, beautifully written play about a retired police officer faced with eviction that uses dark comedy to confront questions of life and death”. I’ll concede the dark comedy, and there are certainly laughs, but the writing is anything but nuanced. In fact, much of the play is just plain silly. Between Riverside and Crazy is a rambling mess of a script that is filled with improbable plot twists, contrived character motivation, and tangential pursuits that muddy the waters. Much of the action seems to come out of left field. Just what this play is about is anyone’s guess because it is all over the map. Where it begins and where it ends up is a bizarre, oddball journey, to say the least.
In one of the New York productions, the theatre had a revolving stage, which makes sense, given the requirements of the script. Coal Mine, with its limited budget and storefront venue has had to overcome severe restrictions. Set designer Anna Treusch has cleverly elected to lay out the rooms in a row, plus adding in a roof venue behind some shutters. Thus we see the raised kitchen, and below that, the living room and the bedroom, which collectively almost run the length of the theatre. Steve Lucas has provided suitable lighting, while Deanna H. Choi’s sound mix of screeching subway trains and noisy traffic helps cover the scene changes.
Kelli Fox is usually a good director, but the pacing is really ragged. The actors have yet to find the rhythm of the play, and one hopes they will over the course of the run. To her credit, Fox has moved her cast through the rooms in a natural sequence, and the apartment does seem to be liveable. Unfortunately, Giurgis has given some characters more to chew on than others, which leads to uneven acting. Pops, who is the central character, is played by Thomas on one level, and the actor never varies. His Pops is seemingly unflappable and somewhat disconnected. Thomas does get out his one-liners, but generally comes across as blancmange.
Rajo’s Oswaldo is also a one-note wonder, going on as he does about healthy eating. Perky Darnell-Martin as Lulu, at least, gets to have her explosion at Junior, while Jones as the latter shows just two moods, irritation and nothingness. Fulton milks her quirky Latinx Church Lady for all she is worth, and practically steals the show. The most polished performances come from Di Zio and Armstrong, the former, who builds his character’s rage in a perfect climb, and the latter, who is absolutely believable as an angst-ridden loyalist caught between a rock and a hard place. She loves Pops, but she also believes he should settle the suit.
Coal Mine performances tend to sell out, so a word to the wise. Get there early so you can sit in the bleachers that face the rooms. That way you will see everything. Unlucky latecomers will have to sit in the chairs that line either side of the set, which means twisting your head and body to watch the play. If you do end up sitting beside the set, at least try to get opposite the kitchen, or, second choice, the living room, because that is where most of the action happens. If you are down by the bedroom, trying to watch sideways becomes sheer torture.
Out of fairness, I should report that I am probably in a minority position. Between Riverside and Crazy did get the usual Coal Mine standing ovation, although a little reluctantly at first, and my friends commented that the play was up to the standard they expect from the company in providing drama of depth. All I could see, however, was character and plot where nothing hangs together.
Coal Mine Theatre, Between Riverside and Crazy, written by Stephen Adly Guirgis, directed by Kelli Fox, Coal Mine Storefront, Nov. 24 to Dec. 22, 2019.