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Claire Armstrong and Alexander Thomas in Between Riverside and Crazy at Toronto's Coal Mine Theatre.

Dahlia Katz/Handout

  • Between Riverside and Crazy
  • Written by Stephen Adly Guirgis
  • Genre: Comedy
  • Director: Kelli Fox
  • Actors: Claire Armstrong, Zarrin Darnell-Martin, Sergio Di Zio, Allegra Fulton, Jai Jai Jones, Nabil Rajo, Alexander Thomas
  • Company and Venue: Coal Mine Theatre
  • City: Toronto

rating

Race. Crime. Addiction. Prostitution. Real estate. Those are some of the volatile subjects of Between Riverside and Crazy, New York playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis’s 2015 Pulitzer Prize-winner.

Yes, real estate. Guirgis’s play, set in one of the last rent-controlled apartments on Manhattan’s upscale Riverside Drive, may be the best comedy-drama on that topic since another Pulitzer-winner, Bruce Norris’s Clybourne Park.

It’s also the perfect property for Toronto’s Coal Mine Theatre, allowing it to reproduce the raw electricity of its very first production five years ago – another acclaimed Guirgis play, with an obscene title I won’t repeat in deference to sensitive readers.

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The company doesn’t disappoint. The acting, ignited by director Kelli Fox for this production, is the kind that generates so much heat, you’ll swear the Coal Mine’s cozy space has shot up a good 10 degrees before the show is over. Be sure to dress in layers.

A lot of that sizzle comes from a superb Alexander Thomas in the central role of the lovably irascible Walter (Pops) Washington. Pops is the long-time leaseholder on the aforesaid Riverside abode, for which he pays a tenth of what it would attract on the open market. A retired cop, recently widowed, he now shares the place with his ex-convict son Junior (Jai Jai Jones), Junior’s pal and fellow ex-con, Oswaldo (Nabil Rajo), and Junior’s girlfriend Lulu (Zarrin Darnell-Martin). Oh, yes, and an unwanted dog he can’t seem to get rid of.

It turns out Pops left the force after he was shot, off-duty, by a white rookie cop in what appears to have been a racially motivated incident. In response, he launched a lawsuit that, eight years on, remains unsettled. When his old partner, Detective O’Connor (Claire Armstrong), and her fiancé, Lieutentant Caro (Sergio Di Zio), show up for a friendly dinner, it turns out they have an ulterior motive: They want Pops to drop his hopeless suit and take the settlement originally offered him. If not, he risks losing his home.

Pops, however, won’t back down. Given the stakes, he must be crazy. What we don’t know is how shrewd the man is, nor what secrets and self-justifications lie behind his defiance. Did I say something about layers? Guirgis’s play is the proverbial onion that steadily unpeels to reveal hidden elements – not just to Pops, but to all its characters – even as its plot takes one surprise turn after another.

The first hint that this is a play about deceptive surfaces comes early on, when Pops refuses to believe the bubbly, scantily clad Lulu is an accounting student. Later, Pops finds himself visited by a mysterious Brazilian church lady (played with sly charm by Allegra Fulton) who turns out to be some kind of witch and sexual healer – or is she? In any case, her visit occasions a wild swerve into magic realism at once ecstatic and hilarious.

Other characters turn out to have ugly sides, in some cases brought out by booze and drugs. The ugliest, however, is provoked not by substance abuse but naked ambition. A powerful Di Zio curls your toes as the smarmy but scarily combustible Caro, whose smiles finally turn to snarls as Thomas’s intransigent Pops refuses to be cajoled or bullied into a settlement.

Fulton’s church lady, meanwhile, is so funny that half her lines were drowned out by laughter on opening night. Darnell-Martin’s Lulu wins our laughs, too, but also our hearts when we see how infatuated she is with Jones’s ambivalent Junior. He, Rajo as the weak-willed Oswaldo and Armstrong as the well-meaning O’Connor are all excellent.

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The show, however, belongs to Thomas. Pops is a beautifully complicated character, written with humour but also with tenderness and understanding, and the actor does him justice. This is, as much as anything, a play about paternity, and Pops is a flawed father-figure you won’t soon forget.

Between Riverside and Crazy continues to Dec. 22. (coalminetheatre.com)

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