The grittiness of playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis’ street-smart comedies has sometimes made it difficult to see the religious feeling coursing through his body of work. His feisty, foulmouthed characters are far from saints. But through these brazen, helpless, semi-sympathetic sinners he has been conducting the most searching inquiry on the American stage into the mysteries and paradoxes of spiritual faith.
The titles of his plays (“Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train,” “Our Lady of 121st Street,” “The Last Days of Judas Iscariot,” “The Little Flower of East Orange,” among them) make no secret of their intent. But the pugnacious energy of his best-known work — the one with the profane title often printed as “The Mother… With the Hat” — is what theatergoers have come to expect when they strap in for another of his whiplash-inducing rides.
“Between Riverside and Crazy,” which won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize, has all the hallmarks of Guirgis’ body of work: loud and bruising on the outside, sorrowful and soulful on the inside. The play, which is receiving its Los Angeles premiere at the Fountain Theatre in a production directed by Guillermo Cienfuegos that finds its strength when it’s needed most, has its author once again traveling down a mean street of redemption.
At the center of this tale is Walter “Pops” Washington, played by Montae Russell in a performance surging with conviction. The character, an irascible African American King Lear from upper Manhattan, presides over an enviable kingdom: a rambling rent-controlled apartment on Riverside Drive. A former cop who was shot while off duty by a white officer, Walter broods in his kitchen about his manifold losses and grievances while pouring himself another drink.
His wife is dead. Junior (Matthew Hancock), his son, is out of prison and stumbling. His lawsuit against the city is still unsettled. And threatening letters from his landlord are piling up outside his door.
Walter rails against the injustices that have been done to him while making grumpy small talk with the stray houseguests who have come to see him as a surrogate father. Junior, who seems to be up to no good smuggling electronic equipment into the apartment, has invited these unsavory characters to shelter in his father’s dilapidated castle. (Scenic designer David Mauer does what he can to suggest luxurious square footage on the cramped stage.)
Oswaldo (Victor Anthony), a recovering addict trying to turn his shambles of a life around, dispenses newly acquired (and only half-digested) dietary advice to a man who would rather eat pie and slug whiskey for breakfast. Lulu (Marisol Miranda), Junior’s girlfriend, prances around in skimpy attire while lavishing affection on her “dad,” who wishes she’d put on a robe and remember to take out the dog.
Walter tolerates their company the way Redd Foxx on the old sitcom “Sanford and Son” used to put up with visitors to his salvage shop. He’s harsh, but you sense he’d be heartbroken if his ire drove them away.
Guirgis’ slangy slingshot dialogue doesn’t flow naturally from the performers in the early going. There’s too much of it, and Anthony and Miranda seem to be impersonating rather than inhabiting their characters. But the production kicks into gear with the plot.
During a visit from Det. Audrey O’Connor (Lesley Fera), his former partner on the beat, and her ambitious fiancé, Lt. Dave Caro (Joshua Bitton), Walter blows up when they urge him to settle his lawsuit with the city. Having lost his sexual functioning after the shooting, he’s still too bitter to strike a compromise even though it’s getting more unlikely with each passing year that he will prevail.
Audrey hints that Walter’s version of events isn’t the full story and that perhaps he bears some culpability for being shot at a dicey after-hours dive known to be a criminal swamp. Walter, however, sees through Caro’s self-interested political maneuvering in a dramatic clash that vibrates with the kinetic intensity of imperfect sides unwilling to concede an inch. (Fera and Bitton prove to be excellent stage foils for Russell, largely because all three actors are adept at mixing motives.)
As this conflict ratchets up, another more subterranean struggle is taking place inside Walter. He’s holding a bad hand of cards in life, but can something positive come out of something negative? “Doing the wrong thing to do the right thing” is something Walter has had plenty of experience of as a police officer. When a Brazilian church lady with erotic cunning (a sly Liza Fernandez) pays a visit in the second act, she shows him that grace — God’s unearned favor — can emerge from the most unlikely of sources. If an old cantankerous drunk with a heavy conscience can get a glimpse of salvation, perhaps he could do the same for others before his life comes to a close?
“Between Riverside and Crazy” has twists that are best not revealed in a review. The surprises that happen are genuinely startling. But what grounds the play is the credible interior journey Walter undertakes. His gruffness can’t conceal his compassionate heart for underdogs, as the movingly acted reckoning between Russell’s Walter and Hancock’s Junior makes clear with every resonant paternal stop and filial start.
As Walter forgives himself for his own failures and relinquishes the burden of shame that’s kept him a prisoner of his own troubled past, he begins to assume the radiance of a religious figure who sees a spiritual spark inside the darkest of souls. The production around Russell’s performance hasn’t completely coalesced, but his portrayal redeems the rough-and-tumble humanism of Guirgis’ holy vision.
When: 8 p.m. Mondays and Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays, extended through Jan. 26 (check with theater for exceptions)
Tickets: $25–$45 (limited pay-what-you-want Mondays).
Info: (323) 663-1525, FountainTheatre.com
Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes