Arts & Theater

Theater review: Capital Stage play straddles the line between comedy and craziness

Dena Martinez plays the Church Lady and James Wheatley plays Pops in Capital Stage’s “Between Riverside and Crazy.”
Dena Martinez plays the Church Lady and James Wheatley plays Pops in Capital Stage’s “Between Riverside and Crazy.”

The title of Capital Stage’s new play, “Between Riverside and Crazy,” says it all. The Pulitzer Prize-winning play moves between extremes of realism and whatever its alternative might be, including the human craziness and extremism of almost every character.

Riverside is a prominent, fashionable and famous Manhattan street where Pops Washington (James Wheatley) has leased a rent-controlled apartment since 1978. That’s the realistic anchor of the play. Pulling with tension at this anchor is his ongoing lawsuit against the city for a shooting that occurred eight years previous, ending his career and his sex life. This suit hasn’t been resolved, and Pops doesn’t show much inclination to resolve reasonably (if reasonable is defined by the budget- and media-concerned city and police department). Another tension to the anchor is the threat of eviction, because of Pops’ numerous violations – like his own tenants who smoke pot, accept stolen goods and perhaps practice prostitution.

Craziness is made from the very ordinary. The play opens at a kitchen breakfast conversation between Pops and Oswaldo (Nestor Campos, Jr.) over the merits of liquor and pie versus Whole Foods almonds and health water. It is such potentially inane everyday conversations that frequently turn into the “crazy” of the play and pepper its serious acts and themes with surprise and unexpected comedy. Pops seems immobilized in a wheelchair, but is animated, witty and convinced in tone; Oswaldo, one of those voluntary (nonpaying) tenants, is pleasant, a bit befuddled in his thinking and dressed in a knit cap and some version of an overweight deadbeat drug addict.

Later, the linguistic craziness pushes Pops to give an unexpected comic fantastic dissertation on diet: “Who say low sodium? Low sodium my ass! High sodium! The highest possible sodium. Get me the most extra-strength Ritz crackers the law allows.”

The crazy diet riff recurs in the play’s penultimate scene, with Oswaldo now dressed in a suit and gladly sharing Fanta and bologna Ring Dings at the breakfast table with Junior (James Ellison III), Pops’ son and his sort-of live-in girlfriend Lulu (Viktoria Luna). The subtle, minimal postmodern diet dialogue and attitudes are among the play’s many surprising delights. Since most of the characters change their stories (more plainly, they lie), the audience is constantly reevaluating how to take them.

This crazy comedy is set against Pops Washington’s main conflict when two white police officers, Detective Audrey O’Connor (Kelly Ogden) and her fiancé Lt. Caro (Aaron Wilton) – in his police brass uniform – come to Pops’ place for dinner. During the dinner, Caro regularly offered “Salud” (in a crazy echo of Sollozzo from The Godfather) to Pops. Wilton offers a forceful, convincing performance of this mixed role. Caro and O’Connor try to convince Pops to accept the city’s deal on his apartment and career – they assert it is well worth taking.

Shrewd, witty, forceful, O’Connor is at first endearing and appears concerned for Pops. But the tone shifts markedly as negotiations undermine the surface friendliness, and O’Connor asks pointedly about the shooting, “Whose fault is that really, Walter?” Then the bonhomie of friends has morphed into the much more distanced attitude of police officers detailing the crimes Walter and his tenants could be accused of.

Pops becomes hostile at the offer, so he reminds the duo of the letters of the racial epithet hurled at him by the white police officer who shot him, uttering emphatically one-by-one for each of the six shots he got. James Wheatley portrays Pops as generally easygoing, but also opinionated and inflexible on some issues, like his diet and his continuing the lawsuit.

The play frequently goes in unexpected directions, and it’s chock-full of entertaining surprises. Two widely separated scenes show the central character mugged on his couch, and later, dying of sexual exhaustion. Another unexpected direction, initiating the play’s second act, is the anomalous figure of the Church Lady (Dena Martinez), apparently a saintly well-wisher who visits the sick and offers communion. Dressed all in black – but a strange combination of peasant and church vestments – the Church Lady keeps opening odd variations on appropriate religious behavior, not to mention removing articles of clothing seamlessly from both of them.

The staging is inventive, with a whirlaround set reversed several times in the play – displaying first, the kitchen, then the living room. Originally we see a sparse, bare, pathetic Christmas tree in a corner; but later it is festooned with lights.

Pops suffers from a life of repeated loss, beginning with him becoming a widower; he’s first seen in a wheelchair, later in a hospital bed, at another point walking with a cane. Nevertheless he is resilient, even comfortable and confident in his views and decisions, especially his negotiations with his former partner and the city of New York. The resilience is underlined in the first scene by his getting out of his wheelchair to walk comfortably.

Here “crazy” is the idiocy and variety of human behavior once it gets launched beyond the merely mundane aspects of rent and tenancy, and that leads to many scenes of mystery, surprise and laughter.

If you go

“Between Riverside and Crazy” by Stephen Adly Guiguis

Where: Capital Stage, 2215 J St., Sacramento

Cast: It’s directed by Judith Moreland, and starring James Wheatley and James Ellison III.

When: The play runs through September 29 and has performances Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday nights at 7, Saturday night at 8, with matinees Saturday and Sunday afternoons at 2.

Cost: Tickets range from $32 to $44

Info and tickets: 916-995-5464