A retired, recently widowed New York City police officer sits in a wheelchair at his kitchen table with a woman from São Paulo he variously calls Church Lady, Miss Brazil and a purveyor of “jungle boogie.” She has come to offer him communion, but exactly what kind isn’t clear. Their bristling, flirtatious, shape-shifting argument, which touches on cookies, devils, freedom and faith, would be enough to make this among the great scenes in recent American drama, equal parts comedy, philosophy and cat-and-mouse game.
Then it goes further. Way further.
And that’s barely midway through “Between Riverside and Crazy,” the astonishing Stephen Adly Guirgis play that opened on Monday in a Second Stage production at the Helen Hayes Theater. First seen Off Broadway in 2014 and in 2015 — after which it won the Pulitzer Prize for drama — it is only now receiving its Broadway debut, tied up in a big foul-mouthed holiday bow by the director Austin Pendleton.
As there wasn’t much to improve, what you see is mostly the same, with Stephen McKinley Henderson (as Walter, the police officer) and Liza Colón-Zayas (as the Church Lady) brilliantly re-creating their roles, along with most of the rest of the original cast. (The one newcomer is Common, playing Junior, Walter’s son.) The expressive revolving set, so crucial to a tale about who gets to live where, still reveals what the real estate ads don’t: the mess down the hallway, the joists beneath the floor, the bricks behind the plaster.
The script, too, is mostly unaltered, except for the addition of a comment firmly rooting the story in 2014. It focuses on crusty Walter, who in the wake of his wife’s death has allowed himself and their rent-controlled Riverside Drive apartment to deteriorate. Junior now runs a fencing operation from his bedroom, which he shares with Lulu (Rosal Colón), a girlfriend supposedly studying accountancy but who seems more likely to be a prostitute. Oswaldo (Victor Almanzar), a recovering addict but not for long, likewise lives on Walter’s largess. A dog of uncertain provenance uses the living room as a toilet.
Each of them, probably even the dog, has a rich back story and a richer, crosscutting problem; Guirgis is masterly at getting a boil going without seeming to work too hard at it. But the central crisis is Walter’s. Having been shot by a fellow policeman eight years earlier, in what he says was a racially motivated crime — Walter is Black and the shooter was white — he has always refused to sign the nondisclosure agreement that was among the city’s requirements for a payout.
“An honorable man doesn’t just settle a lawsuit ‘no fault’ and lend his silence to hypocrisy and racism and the grievous violation of all our civil rights,” he tells Junior, who is less than impressed with the virtuous display.
“Well, that’s a nice story,” he answers.
When Walter’s former patrol partner and her fiancé bring news that the city is offering a new deal, that story finally turns. Over a home-cooked dinner of “shrimps and veal,” the partner, Audrey O’Connor (Elizabeth Canavan), urges Walter to accept the deal so he can secure his shaky hold on the apartment, which even at $1,500 a month — a tenth of its market rent — is a stretch on his pension. But she has other motives, too. The fiancé, Lieutenant Dave Caro (Michael Rispoli), is a slick operator hoping to enhance his department prospects by settling the case without a public-relations nightmare.
Are Audrey and Dave right, despite their mixed motivations, to push Walter toward resolution? In any case, Walter insists on a deal of his own, the terms of which will make you gasp and then make you think.
That all of this is the same as in 2014 doesn’t mean the play hasn’t changed. Great works always revise themselves, as time finds endless new lenses to put in front of them. The past eight years have underlined in “Riverside” the story of white police officers shooting Black men — even fellow officers — and blaming the victims, as Walter is blamed, for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Those crimes, and their concomitant defenses, retint the story with outrage.
But the play puts a natural brake on such interpretations, because Guirgis, entering any complicated debate, can’t help himself from complicating it further. Walter’s story, like everyone else’s, is open to question. Is he out for justice or just revenge? And against whom? The wheelchair, we quickly learn, isn’t his.
Complications like that are unpleasant for absolutists; Guirgis’s needling of victimhood may please as few people on the left as his needling of Rudolph Giuliani may rile those on the right. Along with anyone who can’t tolerate profanity, which is basically the play’s linguistic glue, they will have a hard time warming to a playwright who isn’t interested in telling us what’s right. He only wants to show us what’s real.
Everyone should see it anyway, to experience the pleasure of a great cast making a shrimps-and-veal meal of the incredibly rich material, even as it flips between comedy and tragedy on its way to the truth in between. Actually, that meal may even be too rich at points; the final scene can’t quite digest all that came before, and there are brief moments throughout when the actors’ love for the material itself begins to show through the facade of character, like those bricks behind the plaster.
For the most part, though, Pendleton’s production is amazingly confident, featuring not just Walt Spangler’s set, but also top-notch lighting by Keith Parham, sound and music by Ryan Rumery and, especially, costumes by Alexis Forte, which tell their own story on top of Guirgis’s. And when the scene changes are as expressive as the actors’ attention to every nuance of each other’s actions, staging becomes a kind of emotional choreography: thrilling, precise, impossible to pin down.
That’s Guirgis’s sweet spot. In plays like “Halfway Bitches Go Straight to Heaven,” “Our Lady of 121st Street,” “Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train” and “The Last Days of Judas Iscariot” — all premiered or revived in New York in the past five years — he consistently writes about characters for whom the world as it is, or at least as it seems, offers no reliable templates for creating a credible self. A nice girl can be a prostitute. An addict can be loving. A hero can cry wolf. A fraud can make a miracle.
That’s scary and yet also liberating. As the Church Lady repeatedly tells Walter, “Always we are free.” At any moment we can choose to be something better, or worse, than we are — or, in Guirgis World, most likely both.
Between Riverside and Crazy
Through Feb. 12 at the Helen Hayes Theater, Manhattan; 2st.com. Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes.