THE BASICS: BETWEEN RIVERSIDE AND CRAZY, a play by Stephen Adly Guirgis, directed by Scott Behrend, starring Victoria Pérez, Dave Mitchell, Lisa Vitrano, John Vines, with Alejandro Gomez, Melinda Capeles, and Gabriel Roberé runs through March 31, Thursdays to Saturdays at 7:30 p.m., Sundays at 2 at the new Road Less Traveled Theater, 456 Main Street, near Court Street. (629-3069). Full service bar. www.roadlesstraveledproductions.org Runtime: 2 hours with one intermission
THUMBNAIL SKETCH: Walter “Pops” Washington is a 30-years-on-the -force retired New York City policeman with an 8-year-old discrimination suit against the Police Department because he was accidentally shot by a white police officer in circumstances that are, we find, open to different interpretations. His wife has recently died and his son, “Junior,” has just been released from jail. The two still live in a rent-controlled apartment on Riverside Drive in Manhattan which, if unregulated, would probably rent for 10 times as much. Junior’s girlfriend, “Lulu” whose source of income is not above question, and “Oswaldo,” a recovering cocaine addict, also spend time at the apartment along with an unseen, but apparently very annoying dog. There are visits by cops who are still on the job, a “church lady,” and, as in the game of poker, everybody is bluffing. The play won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Drama as well as the 2015 New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Play, and many other awards.
THE PLAYERS, THE PLAY, AND THE PRODUCTION: One of the signatures of Road Less Traveled Productions is their experienced core group of ensemble players, in this case the excellent Dave Mitchell, Victoria Pérez, and Lisa Vitrano. Mitchell is a master at tough-exterior guys who feel deeply that somehow they have been screwed over and for a moment see a way to grab some power. Guys such as the grieving father “Russ” in CLYBOURNE PARK or “Lee,” the ne’er-do-well brother in TRUE WEST, the guy who never had any advantages. Here Mitchell plays the on-edge “Lieutenant Caro,” so close to a promotion, if only “Pops” would see things his way. His partner is “Detective O’Connor” played by Mitchell’s distaff mirror of an actor, the tough as nails Lisa Vitrano, whether she’s playing the upright minister’s wife as he commits career suicide in THE CHRISTIANS or as the evil “Goneril” in KING LEAR. And Victoria Pérez, who is one of Buffalo’s great directors, plays the mysterious “Church Lady” dressed in black and wearing both a Catholic cross as well as a beaded Brazilian Candomblé (an Afro-Brazilian religion) necklace. She shares a communion wafer with “Pops” in a unique way.
Year after year these actors bring us solid performances where they just dissolve into their roles. Like warm butter melting on toast, they provide a “comfort” that the evening will be, at least when they’re on the stage, error free and most engaging. Add to this that the playwright, Guirgis himself, was a recent RLTP resident artist and that Stephen McKinley Henderson, for whom the role of “Pops” was written, sits on the RLTP board, and you’ve got some serious bona fides. Oh, and did I mention that they absolutely nailed Guirgis’s THE MOTHERF***ER WITH THE HAT (directed by Pérez) two seasons ago? That play featured the high energy comic actress who in this play is “Lulu,” Melinda Capeles. She is a member of the Raíces Theatre Company along with the aforementioned Pérez, as well as Alejandro Gomez who plays “Oswaldo,” so this is an ensemble that plays well with others.
One newcomer to the mix is John Vines who was called up on short notice as a replacement “Pops.” His performance was a little less the avuncular “Pops” and a little more the angry ex-cop, but I suspect that his softer side will start to emerge with every performance.
Playwright David Mamet, who knows a thing or two about writing edgy urban dramas, tells us: “Writing drama comes down to three things: What does the hero want? What happens if he doesn’t get it? And why now? Everything else, throw it away.”
And, in this play, everybody is the hero of his or her life. These are seven very strong characters who want something, even if it’s not well defined, and even if they’re lying to themselves about what that is, but they want it now. Well, except for “Pops-the-poker-player.” He’s willing to wait. But at the shallow end of the patience pool, for “Oswaldo” the coke-addict, now really means NOW! It’s painful to watch.
Guirgis definitely has a handle on writing street dialog.
Guirgis definitely has a handle on writing street dialog. For example, here is a monologue from a preview page offered by Dramatists Play Service that reveals the street rhythms that Guirgis uses so effectively. “Oswaldo,” like so many newly-recovering addicts, tries to instruct everyone else, in this case “Pops,” on how to live their lives. For “Pops” he cautions against eating pie for breakfast.
OSWALDO: . . . Wanna try some of these fresh organic raw almonds from Whole Foods instead? Because my caseworker over at the place, he a real ball breaker like how I told you, but ever since I took his suggestion and switched my breakfast to almonds and health water instead of, you know—Ring Dings with baloney and Fanta Grape. . . . See: the Ring Dings and baloney and Fanta Grape, it turns out, that’s what my doctors and People magazine call “emotional eating” on my part—on account of I only ate that sh*t because those foods made me feel “safe or taken care of.” But now, I’m a adult, right? So I don’t gotta eat like that no more, and I can take care of myself by getting all fit and diesel like how I’m doing from eating these almonds and making other healthful choices like I been making. And so, I’m not trying to get all up in your business, but maybe that’s also the reason you always be eating pie—because of, like, you got emotionalisms—ya know?”
Emotionalisms. They get you every time. In this play, the younger people wear their emotionalisms a little more on their sleeve. “Pops” keeps most of his inside, but emotionalisms, that maelstrom between our actual and desired states, are what’s tripping up everyone, right up to the very (surprising) end.
The characters on stage all seem to have come from a motivational guru Tony Robbins seminar we’ll call “Success for Losers” including Robbins’ observation: “The only thing that’s keeping you from getting what you want is the story you keep telling yourself.”
And everybody does have a story they keep telling themselves. And they have a story they tell others. Many, many small dramatic tensions in this play come from the way that all seven characters work so hard to shape, nuance, and spin their story to others, even using non-verbal communication. One memorable line comes from the saucy hot-pants-wearing “Lulu” who says: “I may look how I look, but that doesn’t mean I am how I look.” That applies to just about every character in the play.
One last thought: I was particularly struck by Gabriel Roberé, an actor in his early 30s, a graduate of Buffalo’s BAVP High School, who was a most convincing “Junior.” He didn’t play to stereotypes; he was definitely his own man, but also definitely his father’s son; and his performance, to me, summarized everything we need to know about this play: when our buttons are pushed, don’t let those emotionalisms push back.
Lead image: L-R Gomez, Robere, Vines credit Gina Gandolfo
UP NEXT: As a $50 per seat fundraiser, a “who’s-who” of Buffalo actors will gather at RLTP one night only, Saturday, April 6, at 7:30 for a full reading of the screenplay of THE PRINCESS BRIDE. Prepare to die… laughing. Then from April 26 to May 19, it’s THE UNDENIABLE SOUND OF RIGHT NOW by Laura Eason, about an old-school-rocker bar owner contending with gentrification, his daughter, and the unwelcome new sounds of today’s music.
*HERD OF BUFFALO (Notes on the Rating System)
ONE BUFFALO: This means trouble. A dreadful play, a highly flawed production, or both. Unless there is some really compelling reason for you to attend (i.e. you are the parent of someone who is in it), give this show a wide berth.
TWO BUFFALOS: Passable, but no great shakes. Either the production is pretty far off base, or the play itself is problematic. Unless you are the sort of person who’s happy just going to the theater, you might look around for something else.
THREE BUFFALOS: I still have my issues, but this is a pretty darn good night at the theater. If you don’t go in with huge expectations, you will probably be pleased.
FOUR BUFFALOS: Both the production and the play are of high caliber. If the genre/content are up your alley, I would make a real effort to attend.
FIVE BUFFALOS: Truly superb–a rare rating. Comedies that leave you weak with laughter, dramas that really touch the heart. Provided that this is the kind of show you like, you’d be a fool to miss it!