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Review | As a fraught year on Broadway ends, a great actor rises

Review | As a fraught year on Broadway ends, a great actor rises


NEW YORK — Stephen McKinley Henderson can convey more in one glance than some actors manage in a geyser of grins, grimaces and gesticulations. In Stephen Adly Guirgis’s compulsively absorbing “Between Riverside and Crazy,” Henderson plays a disabled New York City cop waging legal war with the NYPD after being shot off duty. The rage and guile he embodies so subtly and effortlessly keep a Broadway audience in his thrall.

In the spate of shows that ring out Broadway in 2022, Henderson and “Between Riverside and Crazy” provide the deepest satisfaction. Supported by a nimble cast that includes the rap star Common in a permeably emotional Broadway debut, Henderson immediately rises to the top of any list for awards-season consideration. He originated the role of Walter Washington — a.k.a. Pops — in the world premiere of this Pulitzer Prize-winning comedy-drama at Atlantic Theater Company in 2014, and the performance has mellowed rewardingly with practice, and time.

The quality of nonmusical theater on Broadway this fall has been exceptional. A look at the weekly box-office numbers, published by the trade group the Broadway League, reveals that some of these plays have been struggling to find an audience. Whether that is a side-effect of a pandemic that altered viewing habits or a deeper shift in the culture away from entertainment built on weightier issues, I can’t say. Perhaps both.

But in offerings such as “Topdog/Underdog,” “Death of a Salesman,” “The Piano Lesson,” “Leopoldstadt” and now “Between Riverside and Crazy” at the Helen Hayes Theater, Broadway is exercising its option to remain relevant as a platform for incisive, enlightening drama. (I look forward to attending another exciting play in the next week, the Broadway bow at 91 years young of playwright Adrienne Kennedy and her “Ohio State Murders” starring Audra McDonald.)

Two other shows I caught up with recently, one a musical adaptation of “Some Like It Hot,” the other a biographical drama, “The Collaboration,” are spottier diversions. The musical, premiering at the Shubert Theatre, is another Broadway take on Billy Wilder’s 1959 movie farce about a pair of male musicians disguised as members of an all-female band to escape the mob. It has cute moments: The leads, funny Christian Borle and sparkling J. Harrison Ghee, lift a production directed by Casey Nicholaw that too often reminds you of older, better musicals.

It’s all solidly professional, though also overly mechanical, with a vocally deft performance by Adrianna Hicks as temperamental rising star Sugar. (Actually, a prior musical based on the movie, “Sugar,” had a 505-performance Broadway run in 1972-1973.) Hicks, a vivacious alumna of last season’s hit, “Six,” radiates joy but not insouciance; you’re never quite convinced she’s the winsome backstage troublemaker she’s made out to be.

The score by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, who did the same honors, and fabulously, on “Hairspray,” is a nod to tunesmiths of yore. The second act begins with a number called “Let’s Be Bad” that is a first cousin to Cole Porter’s “Let’s Misbehave.”

There is nothing objectionable about “Some Like It Hot,” just as there’s nothing particularly special.

Playwright Anthony McCarten’s “The Collaboration,” at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, also boasts some polished portrayals, most noteworthily by Jeremy Pope as Jean-Michel Basquiat, the tempestuous American painter who died at 27 in 1988. The play is an account of Basquiat’s unlikely teaming up with Andy Warhol (Paul Bettany) on a joint series of paintings, and of the complex rivalry and friendship that ensued.

Like many biographical plays, this one, directed by Kwame Kwei-Armah, is more discursive than illuminating. Brought together by an agent, Bruno (a slyly manipulative Erik Jensen), the artists reveal their idiosyncratic needs for dominance and acclaim. Your quest for some deeper insight into their lives and times — or even how they make their art — remains unsatisfied, however. The experience is akin to being invited to inspect a canvas before it’s been completed.

The picture in “Between Riverside and Crazy,” on the other hand, is richly infused with nuance and meaning, from the first scene to the last. The seven characters are all liars and yet all are sympathetic: great writing (and directing, by Austin Pendleton) have a way of accomplishing that. Henderson’s Walter is himself a riddle, both generous and embittered, holding out for a payday from his lawsuit while giving shelter in his Riverside Drive apartment to a recovering junkie (the excellent Victor Almanzar) as well as his larcenous son (Common) and airhead of a girlfriend (a hilarious Rosal Colón).

Walter is a person of warring impulses, multidimensionally human, defiantly clear-eyed. He seems to intuit that when his former partner, Detective O’Connor (Elizabeth Canavan), shows up with her police-brass fiance (Michael Rispoli) and an offer to settle the suit, there is an agenda to their benefit, not his. Guirgis fills the play ingeniously with double-dealing characters like these, so that the story twists, and twists again, even as a seemingly benign Church Lady (the terrific Liza Colón-Zayas) turns up, to offer her own unique brand of comfort.

What exactly Walter wants is the linchpin mystery of “Between Riverside and Crazy,” one that Guirgis satisfyingly answers. It’s all staged on Walt Spangler’s marvelously realistic, revolving apartment set, a mechanism that operates much the way Henderson’s performance seems to: spinning our imaginations, joyfully.

Between Riverside and Crazy, by Stephen Adly Guirgis. Directed by Austin Pendleton. Set, Walt Spangler; costumes, Alexis Forte; lighting, Keith Parham; music and sound, Ryan Rumery. About 2 hours 15 minutes. At Helen Hayes Theater, 240 W. 44th St., N.Y.

Some Like It Hot, music by Marc Shaiman, lyrics by Scott Wittman and Shaiman, book by Matthew López and Amber Ruffin. Directed and choreographed by Casey Nicholaw. Sets, Scott Pask; costumes, Gregg Barnes; lighting, Natasha Katz; sound, Brian Ronan. With NaTasha Yvette Williams. About 2½ hours. At Shubert Theatre, 225 W. 44th St., N.Y.

The Collaboration, by Anthony McCarten. Directed by Kwame Kwei-Armah. Sets and costumes, Anna Fleischle; lighting, Ben Stanton; sound, Emma Laxton; projections, Duncan McLean. With Krysta Rodriguez. About 2 hours 15 minutes. Through Jan. 29 at Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 W. 47th St., N.Y.

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