Stephen Adley Guirgis is arguably the American theater’s finest, and funniest, chronicler of the strivers, scammers, and wheeler-dealers who make up the working and underclass of New York City, and of the violence (both psychological and physical) that shapes and limits their lives. His previously best-known plays to date – Jesus Hopped the A Train and The Motherfucker with the Hat – depict the struggles of their young minority protagonists to rescue and redeem lives mired in the morasses of structural racism and social dysfunction. Both of those plays put the human propensity for self-delusion under scrutiny – the gap between how characters see themselves, and how they appear to the rest of their world, fuels both the comedy of the play and its pathos.
Between Riverside and Crazy, the play that won Guirgis the 2015 Pulitzer Prize, dwells in similar territory, although here the protagonist, Pops (Eugene Lee), is an older man, a retired cop living in a palatial rent-controlled apartment on Riverside Drive. He’s a complicated character: smart, generous, and gently honorable on the one hand, and harboring a deep-set resentment and rage on the other. Pops has a right to his grievances: eight years before the start of the play’s action, Pops, a black man, was shot by a rookie white cop outside an after-hours bar; Pops is still holding out for a better settlement from the city and for official acknowledgment of the racism that motivated the shooting. In addition, his wife has also recently died, sending Pops into an alcohol-fueled emotional funk, and in the months since her death his son Junior (Bryant Bentley) has invited some doubtful types to move into the apartment, among them his ditsy girlfriend Lulu (Christina Nieves) and his ex-con, recovering addict buddy Oswaldo (Alejandro Hernandez). Their presence – and the drugs and stolen merchandise and chaos they’ve brought with them – has provoked Pops’s landlord to threaten to terminate his priceless lease and evict him from the apartment.
As long as we’re just seeing things from Pops’s point of view, it’s hard not to sympathize with him. But a visit from his former partner, Audrey (Dawn McGee) and her new fiancé, Lieutenant Caro (Drew Stone) starts to cast doubt about how honest Pops has been with himself, and others, about the events that have brought him to this impasse. Is he the victim of insidious racism, as he claims, or of his own self-destructive behaviors? Is his refusal to accept the city’s settlement an assertion of his pride, as a black man, or is it rather a stubborn expression of petulant wound-licking?
Giurgis isn’t interested in settling those questions, but rather in keeping the paradoxes of Pops’s character perpetually in play. Actor Eugene Lee is sharp and cantankerous in the role, and he brings compelling insight into the complexities of Pops’s psyche. The rest of the cast is also quite fine, populating the world of the play with characters who are almost equally contradictory and unpredictable, and under Pamela Berlin’s direction they flesh out a believable world of damaged and desperate characters.
But I’ll be honest, dear Readers, much as I was intrigued by Guirgis’s characters, and much as I love his delightfully funny and sharply observed dialogue, the play as a whole just didn’t fully add up for me, and once again I find myself in the unenviable position of disagreeing with the Pulitzer Prize committee. I found the trajectory of the second act, in particular, muddy and unfocused, and to get to its resolution some of the characters – in particular Caro and Audrey – seem to make decisions that beggar belief. Moreover, as contradictory as Pops’s character is, his transformation at the end of the play seems to come out of nowhere, and the ending feels spurious. In terms of coherence of plot and a satisfying resolution, I think The Motherfucker with the Hat is by far a stronger play, and I can only imagine that the reason this play won the Pulitzer instead of that one is that the committee could not bestow its award on a play with an unprintable title.
Nevertheless, the Public’s production of this play is impeccable, so I’ll repeat here what I wrote the last time my tastes did not align with critical and popular opinion, which is: as a firm believer that more art – even if it’s not the art I love best – is better than less or no art, and that we should support our local artmakers as they enrich our lives with what they do, I encourage you to see this show and make your own assessment. Come back and comment, too.