Eight years before the pivotal summer depicted in Between Riverside and Crazy, Walter "Pops" Washington, a 30-year veteran of the New York City Police Department, sat drinking in a bar at 6 AM. Soon thereafter a uniformed officer entered the place and unloaded all six of his revolver's bullets into Washington. Washington, who's African-American, sued, and since then the proud, angry, preternaturally defiant man has refused multiple settlement offers from the city, because they all stipulated that no one was at fault in the shooting—and Washington insists the officer called him a nigger before opening fire, although no one can corroborate his allegation. Thus he squanders endless time and money on a case we're told he surely can't win, jeopardizing his health, his financial stability, and ultimately his ability to remain in the rent-controlled apartment on Riverside Drive where he's lived since 1978.
It's the sort of ripped-from-the-headlines catalyst that should give Stephen Adly Guirgis's Pulitzer Prize-winning topical drama (which Steppenwolf curiously advertises as a "twisty, raunchy comedy," although it's none of these) a palpable urgency and credibility from its opening moments. But it doesn't. And not only because Guirgis spends the first two lengthy scenes allowing his main characters—Washington, his ne'er-do-well ex-con son Junior, Junior's ne'er-do-well ex-con friend Oswaldo, and Junior's generally clueless girlfriend Lulu—to do little but sit around and demonstrate their personalities, as though nothing particularly pressing is going on in their lives. But mostly because Guirgis makes a critical omission: he never tells us how the officer justified the shooting. Admittedly officers don't need much justification these days, as recent events have repeatedly shown. Still, Guirgis's officer needs something to convince a jury the shooting was justified, or at least convince the audience that Washington's got a hopeless case. Without it, we're asked to accept on faith that a cop can open fire in a bar, grievously injure a middle-aged fellow officer, and suffer no legal ramifications, or even, it seems, a backlash of public opinion.
The only backhanded justification for the shooting comes not from the officer who shot Washington (whom we never meet) but from Washington's former partner, Detective O'Connor, and her fiance, Lieutenant Caro. They come to the apartment twice—diplomats in act one, enforcers in act two—to try to convince Washington to accept the city's meager settlement offer. They insist that if he hadn't been in that bar at that hour, a place known as a haven for prostitutes and criminals, he would never have been shot. The fact that O'Connor and Caro are white understandably raises Washington's ire and further convinces him that the white establishment will always see him as expendable. But dramatically, the accusation is no help at all. Guirgis asks his audience to believe that two experienced cops, one of whom hopes Washington will walk her down the aisle at her wedding, don't bother to wonder what might have actually happened to cause a fellow officer to use deadly force. Sitting in a shitty bar seems to be enough for them. Perhaps we're meant to believe it's enough for a jury as well.
So we're left with no way to believe that Washington's plight is as dire as Guirgis needs it to appear. And that plight is the play's reason for being.
And so it goes throughout Guirgis's two-hour-plus drama, where most things are provocative and potent but never quite convincing. Junior has moved into his father's apartment, ostensibly to take care of the old man, and it seems Guirgis wants to turn their iconic relationship—the insurgent son taking on the impotent patriarch—into a core dramatic arc. But Junior does little except seethe over past resentments or profess his love and admiration for his father, then run off for a long weekend in Baltimore for no useful reason. The father-son relationship is outlined rather than developed, making the pair's final showdown late in act two largely inconsequential.
Likewise, Junior and Lulu's relationship, which also doesn't develop much, must be intended to carry some dramatic weight, as Guirgis devotes an entire scene to an argument between the two that threatens to break them up. But nothing between them is volatile enough to produce any meaningful repercussions. Even the fact that she lies about being pregnant is ultimately irrelevant.
After an inadequate build-up, Guirgis delivers a finale that strains credulity beyond repair. The details of the city's final settlement offer are mostly ludicrous (city officials can somehow expunge Junior's entire criminal record, for starters). Oswaldo, who relapses in act one and commits a serious violent crime while he's on parole, is back in the fold only a few months later, excitedly going on job interviews. And Washington's final flight to freedom seems tacked on from another play entirely.
Between Riverside and Crazy is hugely unsatisfying given the important issues it attempts to tackle. But one can hardly find fault with Steppenwolf's finely executed production. Under the always sure hand of director Yasen Peyankov, the acting is mostly up to Steppenwolf's high standards, although Eamonn Walker's Washington tends to operate in only three distinct modes: bitterly withdrawn, indignantly explosive, and pathetically injured. Scenic designer Collette Pollard's well-worn apartment provides just the right touch of exhaustion and despair. And Peyankov's pacing gives the evening a sense of catapulting inevitability, even when Guirgis unnecessarily belabors certain plot points. But nothing disguises the fact that the playwright can't make his potent material matter. v