A Duo of Intense Plays About Revenge, Resentment and Redemption

'Snow Orchid' and 'Between Riverside and Crazy' come to Broadway

Snow Orchid’s Robert Cuccioli, left, and David McElwee as father and son.
Snow Orchid’s Robert Cuccioli, left, and David McElwee as father and son. (Photo: Jeremy Daniel)

Brooklyn, 1964. The Lazarra family is waiting for the dreaded arrival of its patriarch, American-born Rocco, after a year in a mental hospital. Filumena, the miserable, religiously bewitched mother, is an immigrant who married Rocco when he was a G.I., came to New York after the war, and never assimilated into American society. Agoraphobic, obsessed with returning to her native Sicily, she hasn’t left the house since her husband’s breakdown, developing an abnormal attachment to her oldest son Sebbie, a closeted gay garage mechanic with secret plans to run away from home with his boyfriend, while turning her back on younger son Blaise, a sensitive lad tortured by his mother’s indifference. None of them knows how to greet Rocco, who was an abusive, violent father and husband who now wants to make things right and be a family again. Unfortunately, they can’t forget the physical and emotional pain he inflicted, and the stage is set for a full-length dysfunctional family drama about anger, resentment, redemption and despair that is fascinating to watch but hard to take.

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The play is Snow Orchid by Joe Pintauro, first produced in 1982 at the great, adventurous and much-lamented Circle Repertory Co. in Greenwich Village in a production starring Olympia Dukakis, Peter Boyle and Robert LuPone. The current revival, directed by Valentina Fratti at the Lion Theatre on West 42nd Street’s Theater Row, has lost none of its bite, although in light of how much American playwriting has changed it does seem overwrought and uneven. Mr. Pintauro remains a writer of the kind of operatic kitchen-sink drama that captures and holds attention while seeming both predictable and melodramatic. The title refers to the assortment of potted orchids Rocco brings home to bring color and joy into a drab household. “Orchids are tough,” says the man with a gruff reputation for cruelty, “and have been known to live over a hundred years.” The survival of the fragile flowers is a metaphor for the hope Rocco has for the renewed longevity of the tormented Lazarra family in Greenpoint. But in the middle of Act Two, when they end up in the filthy, snow-covered garbage, you’re free to draw your own conclusions about the future.

Meanwhile, money is tossed around the stage as well as spaghetti sauce. In the role once essayed by Peter Boyle before he moved to Hollywood and the world of television sitcoms, musical comedy star Robert Cuccioli is superb as the tyrannical father. Angelina Fiordellisi brings authentic Italian timing, flavor and fire to the role of a smothering, demented wife who longs for the sunshine and smell of lemons in her homeland, worships at a shrine to St. Anthony in her bedroom, and kisses her eldest son on the lips with the passion of unrequited lust. As the unloved, misunderstood sons, Stephen Plunkett’s endless abundance of unforgiving loathing as Sebbie, the son his mother really wants as a lover instead of her own husband, and David McElwee’s brave transitions from farce to tragedy as the unloved Blaise, despite some unfortunate laugh-inducing one-liners, add immeasurable pathos. All of them are aware of the play’s physicality, making such good use of the confined space that you really feel like you’re in claustrophobic confines of a cramped Brooklyn flat in the killing chill of a New York winter.

*** *** ***

Between Riverside and Crazy, another gripping work about dysfunctional New Yorkers, has moved from hit status in one Off-Broadway venue to another. Now ensconced in the postage-stamp space called Second Stage on West 43rd Street, this dazzling display of decadence and depression is written by Stephen Adly Guirgis with the alarming impact of being run down by a wayward sanitation truck. It centers on an electrifying performance by Stephen McKinley Henderson as a bulbous, black, obscenity-spouting, alcoholic ex-cop named Walter Washington, who devotes his life to trying to hold on to a spacious rent-controlled apartment on Riverside Drive for which the city officials, policeman’s union and the landlord are threatening eviction. It opens with Walter, hunched in his late wife’s wheelchair, at the kitchen table, feasting on a breakfast of Jack Daniels and pie. The action doesn’t drag and the pace never lags for the next two hours, and you are forewarned—you won’t have time to take a breath.

Between Riverside and Crazy PHOTO: Carol Rosegg
Stephen McKinley Henderson. (Photo: Carol Rosegg)

Walter is a senior citizen, a war veteran, a widower who just lost his wife and still struggles to survive the grieving process, and an ex-cop, but like Rodney Dangerfield, he gets no respect. Eight years ago, Walter’s career as a fearless member of the N.Y.P.D. came to a bad end when he was shot off-duty by a white rookie cop who was accused of racial profiling. The resulting civil lawsuit has never been resolved. Now he has diabetes, heart disease, glaucoma and god only knows what else, but Walter would rather die than compromise. His case is now weakened by sharing the premises with two convicted felons—Oswaldo, a violent crook with a series of jail sentences on his resume who calls him “Pops”; his real son, Junior, a loser who runs a stolen-goods racket out of his bedroom; and Junior’s girlfriend, Lulu, an overweight slob so dumb her lips move when she reads the daily horoscope, who may or may not be pregnant.

Dropping by from time to time to sponge off Walter are his white ex-partner on the force and her tough, unsympathetic fiancé, who forcefully remind the old man he has not handled the lawsuit well. Refusing to settle out of court, encouraging the wrath of his landlord who is desperate to raise the rent on a coveted rent-controlled flat in a prime real estate market, and humiliating the police department by running a house full of criminals, Walter takes on everybody, but even as the play approaches its fitful climax, he still has one last trick up his sleeve that will trump everyone else’s aces combined.

Between Riverside and Crazy is a stick of dynamite that shines a laser light on the shadowy aspects of being a black cop, fighting the system, and never giving up or giving in. Austin Pendleton’s fluid direction propels the action even when everyone is sitting down. Walt Spangler’s marvelous revolving set features five complete rooms of a cluttered prewar New York apartment that circles effortlessly. Sensational acting drives the narrative like a catalytic converter and bold, hilarious writing (former-mayor Rudy Giuliani, in one of Walter’s politically incorrect outbursts, is “a pretentious guinea windbag!”) makes you laugh out loud. A filling experience that leaves you sated, this is the kind of rich, dynamic theater you almost never see anymore—fresh, savage, original, two-fisted and relevant as the front page of a muckraking, slightly unstable but highly entertaining big-city tabloid.

A Duo of Intense Plays About Revenge, Resentment and Redemption