Nobody likes cops, especially black ones, says the streetwise protagonist of “Between Riverside and Crazy.”
“Black civilians think we Uncle Tom,” intones Pops, himself a retired black New York Police Department officer. “White civilians think we’re uppity.”
Disagree if you like, but you’re probably not going to convince Pops. A recent widower who was shot six times by a white cop while off-duty, Pops’ view of the world is hard-won. From fighting City Hall to beginning his mornings with a teacup full of whiskey, it seems there’s little that Pops is willing to change.
This lovingly-drawn individual is one of a handful that populate “Riverside,” Stephen Adly Guirgis’ Pulitzer-winning play that’s strong on character but short on any easy revelations. Every time you think you know where the show is going, Guirgis changes course, diving headlong into territory strange, profane and occasionally illuminating.
Eight years after being shot, Pops (David Emerson Toney) is still fighting the city government with a discrimination lawsuit, and the city isn’t playing around. Threatened with eviction from his rent-controlled apartment on Manhattan’s Riverside Drive – and closer scrutiny by law enforcement of his rag-tag, live-in family – Pops is holding his own. This resistance is given a smiling face by his former partner detective Audrey O’Connor (Bianca Bryan) and her ladder-climbing fiance, Lieutenant Caro (Larry Cook).
Living with his son Junior (Jerold E. Solomon), his son’s girlfriend Lulu (Juliana Caycedo) and recovering addict Oswaldo (Thony Mena), Pops acts as an actual or stand-in father to those around him. The trio all have a whiff of illicit activity about them, and Pops is no saint either – he was shot in an afterhours bar considered off-limits for officers, among other transgressions.
In Cadence Theatre Company and Virginia Repertory Theatre’s current production at Theatre Gym, Toney puts in a strong performance as Pops, but Tawnya Pettiford-Wates’ direction feels uneven, and the dramatic scenes – like the confrontation between Pops and Oswaldo near the end of the first act – don’t crackle the way they could. Solomon gives gravitas to the son who doesn’t always see eye-to-eye with his father, and Mena is chummy as Oswaldo, who finds a surrogate father in Pops until things go south between them.
While Cook does well with the sort of streetwise humor you’d expect from a career cop, his dramatic scenes with Toney don’t always hit their mark, and Bryan seems stuck vacillating between two emotions. In one of this season’s most surprising scenes, Maria Hendricks’ Church Lady gloriously blends the spiritual and the sexual, a Guirgis specialty.
Victimhood, self-delusion, faith, grief and systemic racism are all touched on, but the playwright gives no easy answers to any of these issues. Perhaps the best summation is that in Pops’ determination to fight the systems that have oppressed him, he’s able to find a resurrection of spirit.
Cadence Theatre Company and Virginia Repertory Theatre’s “Between Riverside and Crazy” plays through Nov. 4 at Theatre Gym, 114 W. Broad St. Visit va-rep.org or call 282-2620.