"Between Riverside and Crazy" opens with a memorable image: A grumpy, older black man in pajamas sitting at the breakfast table, slowly eating a generously large slice of pie. And as he lingers between bites, he sips on a glass of whiskey. You get the feeling he enjoys this kind of breakfast regularly.
Then, his grown-up son comes in and frowns. “It’s 10 in the morning, pops. Why are you drinking?” he asks.
The old guy doesn’t miss a beat. “Oswaldo wanted a drink, so I had one with him,” he says, gesturing at a younger man sitting at the breakfast table.
And the old guy is not apologetic in the least. In fact, he’s cantankerous and proud of it. If he chooses whiskey for breakfast, that’s the way it’s going to be.
So goes Capital Stage’s first Sacramento production of the Pulitzer Prize winning play from 2015, about a retired black cop and the diverse assortment of locals who visit his apartment. The show initially comes on like a comedy, but gradually the mood turns serious, as these seemingly affable individuals start manipulating the situation for reasons of their own.
As the play unfolds, the old man’s tirades just keep on coming, because it doesn’t take much to set him off. Sometimes, he delivers biting one-liners along the line of Redd Foxx doing the jaunty but sanitized sitcom "Sanford and Son" back in the 1970s, like the scene in which he teases his son for not helping with the cable TV bill: “‘Pay-per-view’ doesn’t mean I pay, you view.”
But, mostly, the old man resembles a reincarnation of Foxx’s considerably raunchier nightclub routine, with lots of sexual references and numerous words that you’re not supposed to use. If these crusty tirades were in a film, it would be rated R for language.
The old man also has a chip on his shoulder, dating back to his years as a police officer. Eight years ago, the old man was shot six times by a much younger white officer. It happened while the old goat was off duty, drinking himself blind at a seedy dive that was regarded as a “no-go zone,” even for officers who are not working.
For years, the old man has waged a long-running lawsuit against the police department. But midway into this play, two of his white colleagues from the force — well-played by Kelley Ogden and Aaron Wilton — drop by and gently suggest that it’s time for the old man to quietly accept an out-of-court settlement. As you might expect, the old man is furious.
Veteran local actor James Wheatley, who’s turned in fine performances locally for decades, is absolutely marvelous as the cranky old man — impish and irrational, winning smiles from audience even when he’s being impossible or cruel.
Surrounding the old guy are a half-dozen equally interesting urban oddballs of diverse ethnicity: a motley crew including a the old man’s son, who’s out on parole (played by local actor James Ellison III); a Latino buddy named Oswaldo, whose carefree manner can be misleading (Nestor Campos Jr.); and the Latina Church Lady (Dena Martinez), who practices a singular form of Santeria and sets off of one of the funniest seduction scenes I’ve seen onstage in a long time.
These characters each seem like huggable teddy bears from a cheerful sitcom when first you meet them. But keep your eyes peeled, because beneath the comic banter in the opening scenes, you’re dealing with serious folks who harbor hidden agendas and can play fast and loose with the truth when they decide to advance their cause by mixing in some convenient deceptions in order to get what they want.
Director Judith Moreland deftly handles several memorable scenes in which this these characters turn the tables on each other and show us who they really are — and not in a nice way.
Playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis also weaves in a dazzling variety of observations and ideas, involving everything from racial tension to equal justice under the law, substance dependency (of various kinds), rent control, and even a few conversations about pregnancy and parenthood. And the playwright gets this unlikely crazy quilt of odd characters and unlikely themes to resonate with each other, which is a pretty neat trick.
Little wonder that the script got a Pulitzer.
The Capital Stage production of Between Riverside and Crazy by Stephen Adley Guirguis continues through September 29 at Capital Stage in Sacramento. Information at www.capstage.org.