The people who populate the pungent, street-smart dramas of Stephen Adly Guirgis would be mere walk-on characters in the plays of many other writers, if they were present at all, there to provide a colorful burst of vernacular or comic relief, then disappear.
Not so with Guirgis. With a kind of tough-minded sentimentality, his focus and his sympathies are with the walking wounded, even when they’re walking on the wrong side of the law, and even when part of the damage they are struggling to recover from is self-inflicted.
This playwright is a believer in second chances, and without softening their rough edges, Guirgis has a way of making us root for scuffling figures like Jackie, the newly paroled drug dealer in “The (Expletive) With the Hat’’ who is trying to stay straight while perpetually one wrong move from disaster.
As its slightly too on-the-nose title suggests, virtually everyone in Guirgis’s Pulitzer-winning “Between Riverside and Crazy’’ is on the edge and at least half-broken. But none are beyond repair — or, crucially, redemption — in the outstanding SpeakEasy Stage Company production of this perceptive, humane, frequently funny play.
Under the sure-handed direction of Tiffany Nichole Greene and persuasively acted across the board by a strong SpeakEasy cast, it’s a work that engages the ear (Guirgis’s dialogue is the gift that keeps on giving), the conscience, and the heart. About that last one, though: There are moments early on in “Between Riverside and Crazy’’ when you worry that things are about to turn irrevocably maudlin. Even the name of the play’s lead character, a gruff widower and former New York cop called Pops, is a bit too Wilford Brimley-ish for comfort.
Will Pops turn out to be that dreaded cliché, the curmudgeon with a heart of gold? In truth, Guirgis does not entirely avoid that pitfall. But a deeper truth is that in Pops the playwright has created a spiky and complicated original, and in “Between Riverside and Crazy’’ Guirgis has fashioned a gritty slice of life that by the end has elevated itself into something like a modern morality play.
Played to gravel-voiced perfection at SpeakEasy by Tyrees Allen, Pops has the full name of Walter Washington, and he has generously opened his spacious, rent-controlled apartment on Manhattan’s Riverside Drive to a down-on-their-luck assemblage of tenants, free of charge.
They include his son, Junior (Stewart Evan Smith), who served a couple of stints in prison but is now enrolled at City College (though there are hints he might not be entirely done with larceny); Junior’s girlfriend, Lulu (Octavia Chavez-Richmond), who claims to also be a college student but might in fact be a prostitute, and who also claims to be pregnant; and Oswaldo (Alejandro Simoes), a convicted felon trying hard to stay clean and sober.
Also eventually on the scene are Pops’s former beat partner, Detective O’Connor (Maureen Keiller); her smarmy fiance, Lieutenant Caro (Lewis D. Wheeler); and, arriving out of left field, a Church Lady, portrayed by Celeste Oliva in an untrammeled, go-for-broke performance of such comic brio that you wish she’d shown up earlier.
People need things from Pops. Oswaldo the ex-con clearly needs the older man to serve a fatherly role in his life, and so, in certain ways, does Junior. His relationship with Pops is fundamentally loving but fractious, rife with recriminations and unresolved issues from the past involving Junior’s mother and Pops’s stubborn refusal to settle a long-running lawsuit.
The policing career of Pops, who is black, ended years earlier after he was shot half a dozen times by a white rookie cop when Pops was off-duty in an after-hours bar. Since then, Pops has doggedly held out for $5 million while resisting pressure to agree to a settlement and move on with his life. But it’s now clear that both his apartment and his pension are in jeopardy if he doesn’t agree to a settlement for far less money than he has been seeking.
As the battle plays out between the proud, combative ex-cop and the multiple forces arrayed against him, a fuller, more revealing portrait of Pops emerges, in all his complexity and contradiction. A few more blows are in store for Pops, but the thing to remember about Stephen Adly Guirgis’s characters is that even when they fall, don’t bet against them getting back up.
BETWEEN RIVERSIDE AND CRAZY
Play by Stephen Adly Guirgis. Directed by Tiffany Nichole Greene. Presented by SpeakEasy Stage Company. At Roberts Studio Theatre, Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts, through Oct. 13. Tickets from $25. 617-933-8600, www.speakeasystage.com
Don Aucoin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.