Encore Michigan

A Vivid ‘Between Riverside and Crazy’ at DRT

Review May 30, 2024 Kent Straith

DETROIT–I am always thrilled to be assigned a show at the Detroit Repertory Theatre because it’s an experience unlike any of the other regional playhouses in and around Detroit.

It’s built in a former Finnish bar (yeah, as in Finland) and was converted into a performance space sixty years ago…but the bar itself was preserved and is still pouring. There’s also a counter where you can order a hot meal (it’s not a Hardee’s…there are two choices), and before every show, Executive Director Leah Smith greets the audience, and welcomes them with a story about the history of the theatre and its community support role in the 1967 riot.

Whether she means to or not, Leah’s speech warms up the audience and gets everyone in a “we’re all in this together” frame of mind that is a real favor to the actors who are about to perform. At risk of beating this drum too long, one thing I really appreciate about walking into the auditorium here is the craftsmanship and attention paid to the little details in set design.

Between Riverside And Crazy was the third show I have seen at DRT this season, and I have had the same reaction each time. If set designer Harry Wetzel (and his intern Jamie Hope) ever think their work goes unnoticed or unappreciated, you can always reach out to me personally and I will go on about it at length.

So…about the show itself: It’s a very solid story, well written with a great mix of characters, and the company here do a terrific job bringing it to life and making the best possible use of the beautiful set which places the audience on the fourth wall of a large, richly appointed, rent-controlled (this will become a crucial plot point) apartment on New York’s Upper West Side…specifically, on Riverside Drive.

At the heart of the show is Pops, a involuntarily retired NYPD officer who has been living on a pension for the past several years after somehow surviving being shot six times by another cop. The incident has left him a physically broken man, and his wife’s very recent death has left him a crotchety, cantankerous curmudgeon but whose heart remains big enough that he keeps taking in strays. People, that is. His recently out of prison son Junior lives with him, and Junior has brought in his girlfriend Lulu, and his friend Oswaldo, all of whom call him Dad. It honestly sounds pretty heartwarming…and it is, until the dinner party.

According to one of my “Unbreakable Laws Of Drama,” nothing good ever happens in a car or at a dinner party, and this one doesn’t disappoint. It’s here we meet Detective Audrey O’Connor, a white, Irish, New York cop who if she weren’t at this party would probably be harassing Bernardo and the rest of the Sharks [West Side Story] at the dance. Audrey is engaged to Lieutenant Caro, who starts out ingratiatingly friendly and morphs into something much more sinister. It’s here we learn that Pops is enmeshed in a years long lawsuit against the City for his injuries, and, tired of the negotiations dance, they have decided to try and strongarm him into a settlement.

As Pops, David Skillman is very convincing as a grievously injured old man, and has the physical awareness and movement discipline to really convince the viewer that he was ripped apart by gunfire and will be diminished for the rest of his life. If his headshot is recent, Skillman seems to be playing significantly older than he actually is, which is another tip of the cap for a totally convincing, multi-layered performance.

Most of the rest of the cast have similar sized parts, and I don’t have a negative word to say about any of them. I wish we could have seen more stage time for Will Street as Oswaldo, whose character disappears for almost the entire second act, but this is a requirement of the story. I want to give special kudos to Matt Hollerbach as Lt. Caro: He was really terrible. And by terrible, I mean really good at seeming terrible. Hollerbach, in addition to his work as an actor, is a community activist fighting police brutality and rising fascism in America, so for him to fully embody Caro, a smarmy, oily, sneering avatar of everything bad about policing and nothing that’s good is a testament to his craft. Also standing out from the crowd is Kate McClaine as The Church Lady. For people of a certain age, the words “Church Lady” bring to mind a cartoonish stereotype of prim Protestant propriety. Well…get ready for a surprise.

Director Jeff Nahan does a splendid job of leading this talented cast and production team to give us a real experience of storytelling.

(Between Riverside And Crazy is playing at Detroit Repertory Theatre at 13103 Woodrow Wilson St in Detroit, now through July 7th. Tickets are available at www.detroitreptheatre.com, or by calling the box office at 313-868-1347. Questions? Write to ‘info@detroitreptheatre.com’)

Week of 6/17/2024

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