The characters in Stephen Adly Guirgis’s “Between Riverside and Crazy” are complex, says the playwright, but not complicated.
“We are all a glorious mass of contradictions,” Guirgis says about the individuals who populate his Pulitzer Prize-winning play. “The most interesting characters onstage are the ones who challenge our assumptions.”
Guirgis has built an impressive body of work around his unerring ear for dialogue and storytelling that explores the lives of city dwellers. Whether onstage in “Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train, “Our Lady of 121st Street,” “The [Expletive] With the Hat,” or in “The Get Down,” his recent Netflix series with Baz Luhrmann, Guirgis introduces individuals who seem strikingly familiar until they deliver an unexpected twist. In fact, the crowd that moves in and out of “Between Riverside and Crazy,” which SpeakEasy Stage Company is presenting Sept. 14-Oct. 13, is full of surprises.
At the center of the action is Pops, a recently widowed and retired New York City cop, who is still holding out for a hefty settlement to compensate for injuries he sustained when a white cop shot him. Although he technically lives alone, his rent-controlled apartment on Riverside Drive on Manhattan’s Upper West Side is humming with house guests, including Pops’s son, Junior, who may be using the apartment to fence stolen goods; Junior’s girlfriend, Lulu, who may be pregnant; Junior’s friend, Oswaldo, who may be in recovery; a Church Lady, who may be visiting to deliver Communion; Detective O’Connor, Pops’s former partner; and Lieutenant Caro, O’Connor’s fiance, who may be eager to share the news of their engagement.
“Everyone in this play has a little dirt or a secret they are trying to cover up,” says director Tiffany Nichole Greene. “We’re all like that, and it’s almost therapeutic to see people exposing their secrets on stage.”
What makes Guirgis’s characters so special, Greene says, “is that he writes in the flaws in such a believable way, we see their humanity, and empathize with them, even though they are ex-cons, or former addicts or living a lie they’ve convinced themselves is true.”
Guirgis says elements of the play are autobiographical — he lives in the same Riverside Drive apartment where he grew up, returning there to care for his father after his mother’s death — but the themes of the play create a much wider ripple than any one individual’s story.
“Specificity is desirable,” Guirgis says, “because it paints a picture for other artists to interpret. I’m always aspiring for a kind of timelessness to the story, but it’s not something I can consciously pursue.”
Guirgis began his career as an actor, working with the late Philip Seymour Hoffman at the LAByrinth Theater, and he continues to perform onstage, in film, and on TV in what he describes as “small but pivotal roles.”
“I was cast in a film called ‘Two Against Nature,’ and I was nervous because the role includes full-frontal nudity,” Guirgis says. “I called Ethan Hawke to ask his advice. He told me, ‘It’s all going to be over in 15 minutes, so why not do the risky things?’ That’s how I approach playwriting, too. I try to swing for the fences.”
Completing Coen’s ‘Journey’
Actor, director, and playwright Larry Coen had a deep affection for the theater: the superstitions that haunt actors, the passion that drives them to perform, and the impact the ritual of performance has on actors as well as audiences.
One of Coen’s final plays, “Journey to the Center of the Stage,” which was completed just months before his sudden death in January, takes audiences behind the scenes to meet actors before and after they step on stage, and offers a unique perspective into what it takes to be a performer.
Beau Jest Moving Theatre, which had a nearly three-decade-long working relationship with Coen, is presenting the world premiere of “Journey to the Center of the Stage” at the Charlestown Working Theater through Sept. 16 ($25; www.charlestownworkingtheater.org). Beau Jest founding artistic director Davis Robinson says the production has been an opportunity for company members to mourn their friend while celebrating the experience of theater he loved.
“Larry knew these characters inside out and created these scenes with so much empathy, detail, and humor, it’s been a joy to work on,” Robinson says.
“Journey to the Center of the Stage” is a collection of 10 scenes. At the Charlestown Working Theater, the audience will move to spaces representing different locations, including a dressing room where an actor talks about his 27-year career in “A Christmas Carol”; the ladies room where two sisters compare notes on the show they just saw; the Colonial Theatre circa 1957, when an actress is cut during the tryout for an Ethel Merman musical; and even Times Square, where two aspiring actresses hand out fliers while they wait for their big break.
““Each scene appears to be moving in one direction, and then [Coen] adds a twist that reveals a deeper level of meaning,” Robinson says.
The audience is greeted initially by a stage manager who references Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town” and asks the audience to play the role of the silent observers of the action, much the way that the souls in the cemetery in Grover’s Corners watched the actions of the living.
One of Coen’s favorite superstitions comes from the British theater, where the final line of the play is never spoken until opening night, which keeps the theater ghosts from misbehaving.
“Larry’s conceit in ‘Journey to the Center of the Stage’ is that the audience will write the closing line of the play every night,” Robinson says. Before the play starts, the stage manager will ask the audience to write down their suggestions for the final line of the play, they will be collected, and one will be chosen.
“It is a little prescient,” says Robinson, “since Larry talks about the ghosts in the theater and the spirits of actors who watch over the action. Although the scenes are separate, the through line of the play is the resiliency of theater people.”
BETWEEN RIVERSIDE AND CRAZY
Presented by SpeakEasy Stage Company. At Roberts Studio Theatre, Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts, Sept. 14-Oct. 13. Tickets $25-$60, 617-933-8600, www.bostontheatrescene.com