Stephen McKinley Henderson in "Between Riverside and Crazy" on Broadway (Photo credit: Joan Marcus)

Riverside Drive is a scenic thoroughfare running up Manhattan’s west side — from 72nd Street, threading through Morningside Heights, Harlem and Washington Heights. The direction is parallel to the iconic avenues of Broadway, where “Between Riverside and Crazy” currently runs at Second Stage’s Hayes Theater. The play — which won playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis a Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2015 and now makes its Broadway debut — mirrors both the strengths and faults of its namesake street. The story expertly cuts its way through diverse communities and social classes but does not avoid pot (or in this case, plot) holes. Fortunately, virtuosic actor Stephen McKinley Henderson sits in the driver’s seat as protagonist Walter Washington and makes the 140-minute road trip an unforgettable ride. 

“Between Riverside” opens up in Walter’s — aka Pops’ — apartment. His space is shabby —successfully tattered with rust and cramped with overworn furniture by scenic designer Walt Spangler — but it holds incredible value. Literally, because of its prime geographic location with a rooftop overlooking Manhattan’s gridlocked beauty. And metaphorically, because of the people that occupy it: Walter’s paroled son Junior (an earnest Common in his theatrical debut); his dense, but endearing pregnant girlfriend, Lulu (Rosal Colón); and an addict on the mend named Oswaldo (Victor Almanzar), who nurtures an affinity for Walter, who acts as a moral stand-in for the boy’s father. The whole gang stays on Riverside rent-free because Walter insists, “guests don’t pay no rent.” 

Walter barks out rules like this, often followed by a croak or groan. Henderson portrays the military veteran and former cop as a man whose hardness is humbled by age and injury. He’s that righteously grumpy and overly prideful genre of old man who downs a slice of pie with whiskey first thing in the morning and doesn’t take his prescription medicine. Henderson’s performance is emotive even in its coarseness — and consistently hysterical. I struggle to imagine any other actor doing the role such justice.   

Walter is this man of conviction, not only because of his NYPD-past, but because he’s survived the impossible. Eight years ago, a rookie white cop shot Walter — who is Black — six times while the veteran officer was off duty. Nearly a decade after the incident, Walter is still fighting the legal battle, even as many pressure him to settle this case. His former partner, Detective O’Connor (Elizabeth Canavan), has a particularly vested interest in the settlement because it will advance the career of her lieutenant fiancée (Michael Rispoli). 

Throughout “Between Riverside,” Guirgis whips this brand of intimate drama and conflict around like an F1 race. Director Austin Pendleton is an expert on the turf — careening actors into a fast pace when stakes are high or slowing down the speed in scenes where characters unfurl deeper secrets. And everyone, including Walter, holds a lie close to their chest. The unraveling of those lies is actually what weakens Guirgis’ script from time to time. Like when a major revelation about Lulu’s pregnancy is left unexplored. Or when the secretly insidious motivations of a Church Lady (the ever-alluring Liza Colón-Zayas) meant to keep Walter company are delivered too plainly. 

“Between Riverside” is more concerned with celebrating its setting than tying up every loose end in its plot. Regardless of what New York City borough you were born in, there’s a familiarity in Walter’s grit, a lyrical boricua beauty in Oswaldo’s speech, a communal humor to Lieutenant Caro’s hatred of Rudy Giuliani. But the years between the original Off-Broadway premiere in 2014 and today have shifted the play’s spirit. The abuse of police power in this city and wielding of impunity has an even fouler stench after the events of 2020. Like Walter, my father is a military veteran and he retired from the NYPD as a detective in the early 2000s. The layered complexities of wearing that infamous badge hover over every story he has told me about his time on the force. As both he and Walter know, skin shines black even under blue thread. This is the unpleasant reminder cycling through Guirgis’ story — black, brown, blue, green are no longer just colors, but labels that carry truckloads of implications, biases and dangerous consequences. 

Just as the culminating scene of “Between Riverside” honors Walter’s resilience, the entire play celebrates Henderson’s authority of theatrical craft. Though the play won its scribe a Pulitzer, here it’s Henderson’s gorgeous, affecting performance that deserves a reward. He makes stubbornness a trait to root for and reminds us that freedom is a right to protect. After decades of inhabiting supporting parts in notable plays and movies, the titan steps directly into the spotlight mastering a role that is wholly his own.    

“Between Riverside and Crazy” opened at the Hayes Theatre on Dec. 19, 2022.

Review photo: Joan Marcus.

Creative: Written by Stephen Adley Guirgis; Original music by Ryan Rumery; Directed by Austin Pendleton; Scenic design by Walt Spangler; Costume design by Alexis Forte; lighting design by Keith Parham; sound design by Ryan Rumery. Casting is by Telsey + Company.

Produced by Second Stage Theater, president and artistic director Carole Rothman and executive director Khady Kamara.

Cast: Victor Almanzar, Elizabeth Canavan, Rosal Colón, Liza Colón-Zayas, Common, Stephen McKinley Henderson and Michael Rispoli.