Stephen McKinley Henderson, Victor Almanzar, and Common; photo by Joan Marcus.
At one point toward the start of Between Riverside and Crazy, Stephen Adly Guirgis’ Pulitzer-winning play now extended at the Hayes Theater on Broadway, Lulu says, “I love you Dad!” “Dass cause I’m so lovable,” Stephen McKinley Henderson as Pops replies. It’s a truth: over the past couple of years, and throughout the decades before, few actors have been such a warming presence on stage or screen, even in bit parts.
Henderson appeared in the Oscar-winning Manchester by the Sea as a compassionate manager and in Lady Bird as a misunderstood drama director, each capable of immense grace. On Broadway, he lent a fiery kick as Nora’s long-suffering ex-husband in A Doll’s House, Part II. And now, in a meaty role bespoke for him, Henderson plays an ailing patriarch in a richly layered play that finds promise in familiar territory: a domestic drama about a home soon to be lost.
Lulu (Rosal Colón) isn’t the only person to refer to Pops as “Dad.” Lulu’s boyfriend Junior (the rapper Common), Pops’ blood son, certainly does, as does Junior’s drug addict friend, Oswaldo (Victor Almanzar), and his old coworker from the police precinct, Audry (Elizabeth Canavan), wants Pops to walk her down the aisle as she’ll soon marry Lieutenant Caro (Gary Perez). That is, if Pops’ health doesn’t fail: he sustained six bullets while off the clock; a junior, white officer shot him (and other Black people) drinking too much at a bar one six AM.
In the years since, Junior has moved back home after a stint in jail, bringing Lulu with him. (Common gives a commanding and vulnerable performance, and as his girlfriend, Colón’s airheadedness is smashingly comical.) Oswaldo also lives there, in the uptown home in a the now gentrified neighborhood Pops pays just $1500 a month to live in. But rent controlled-assurance may be slipping away: the terms of Pops’ lease rest on a certain appearance and quality, and after his wife passed away last year, both have disintegrated.
It’s testament to Guirgis’ always sturdy writing that such familiar territory — a dying patriarch trying to hold onto former glory, a rebel son trying to connect with him, and the home they share soon to be torn asunder — shines so humorously and achingly in Austin Pendleton’s production, which fluidly moves between kitchen, living room, and rooftop thanks to Walt Spangler’s turntable set. Above all, the performances grant spark and urgency, further exacerbated when Audry and Caro come by to tell Pops he may be under scrutiny and kicked out due to Junior’s issues with the law. Therein, Giorgio’s presents a convincing moral battle and a realistic portrayal of the ways in which white members of law enforcement fail to understand the complex positions of their Black peers.
In tense moments like this, or even when simply discussing the drinkability of tap water, and, certainly, when in one of the wackiest sex scenes on Broadway (shared with a churchgoer played with gusto by Maria-Christina Oliveras), Henderson, for once, surrenders to someone else’s will. Nonetheless, he is somehow still powerful — and hilarious, and touching, and stubborn but regal, and sure of himself, bitter, and, yes, lovely.