THE RIVERSIDE has been on my must-see list since it was first announced last year as part of the Clifton Players season. Things didn’t materialize until now and this Kevin Crowley play has opened the 2014-2015 schedule, to a sold out audience on Opening Night. The Players have really gained momentum since their first show (“Disgruntled Employees,” also written by Crowley) several years ago. This group is known for assembling some of the most talented actors in town for their productions; this brand new play requires 13 actors and for the most part, this acting ensemble hits a home run.
A home run is what you want from a show about baseball. THE RIVERSIDE is the story of a family neighborhood bar in Mt. Adams and events that occurred in 1989 when the Pete Rose gambling scandal came to light. The old man who owns the bar is sick, his youngest son, Sean, has returned from the peace corps, and he finds that little has changed. Too little, in fact, as he sets about trying to change things to unsurprisingly poor results. Sean’s story is at the center of the play, and relative newcomer Pete Wood (who made his debut in last year’s “The Irish Curse”) does a fine job holding things together.
Let’s get the not-so-good out-of-the-way: at over 2 and a half hours, the play is far too long. I’ve often thought that a playwright should be very cautious directing his own work. It seems to me that collaboration with someone who will make tough decisions is a good idea. You also need a strong director to reel in actors like these; with so much talent on the stage, its important to contain them a little, especially in such an intimate space. Also, there are a bunch of really good ideas in the script, but the story feels a little all over the place. There’s too much going on, too many characters, and too much time when the action on the stage doesn’t move the story forward. While so much about this show feels authentic (and I didn’t even grow up here), the behavior of some of the characters towards the end of the show doesn’t resonate with me. I suspect this is a deeply personal story for the author and I absolutely appreciate that. But one of the best pieces of advice I ever heard about theatre was “don’t be sentimental about the work.” And finally, the female characters are shallow and one-dimensional, which is a shame given the level of talent of the female ensemble members in the company, specifically Christine Dye and Mindy Heithaus.
With that out-of-the-way, let’s talk about the phenomenal acting. Daniel Britt, one of my favorite actors in town, has such a presence whenever he’s on stage. As the bartender “Meat,” he brings the same warmth and comfort you’d hope to find in a bar like this in real life. I just adore his work He opens the bar to help out the old man after his stroke and his interplay with the delightfully scene-stealing Gary McGurk (“Slug”) is a highlight. McGurk plays the best drunk I’ve ever seen. There’s a scene with Michael Shooner’s older brother, “Michael,” that had the audience in stitches and for me it was the best scene in the play. McGurk is great! So is Shooner, of course, who I last saw in Falcon Theatre’s “Seminar.” As with that show, he plays an arrogant man who’s risky, secretive behaviors are catching up with him. He makes unlikable characters tolerable and I really like his work.
I used to stop at Arby’s nearly every morning for breakfast. There was a group of roofers who came in and caused havoc, were loud, obnoxious, and I always cringed when they arrived. Buz Davis and Paul Morris reminded me of those jerks, as they play “Foul Ball” and “T-Bone” with reckless abandon. They’re funny and despicable all at the same time. Christine Dye, (“Weezy”) made me cry with her reaction to the death of Mark Bowen’s “Joe Buck” character. I don’t know how she does it, really, but she is so raw and real on stage; it’s an amazing talent and I want to see more. Mindy Heithaus (“Flopsy”) also has that ability; she is able to do some things on stage that are subtle, understated, and I just eat it up. The excellent Reggie Willis, Mike Dennis, Cathy Springfield, and MaryKate Moran round out this fine cast. It’s really something to have this much talent under one roof.
The crew (Carter Bratton, Buz Davis, and others) built a bar so real that my friend thought it was a permanent fixture. It was his first time in the space and he started telling me other shows they should do that featured bars. I said, “oh, that’s not usually here.” He was very impressed and he should have been. It looked as real as could be. I loved the newspaper clippings, the cigarette machine, the period neon signs, and the 8×10 of JFK that reminds everyone that this is a “democrat bar.”
Anyone who grew up in Cincinnati, remembers the Pete Rose player-manager era, or wants to enjoy some delightful and marvelous acting only a few inches away should get to 404 Ludlow Avenue and check out THE RIVERSIDE. Just like you’d be if THE RIVERSIDE was real (and I suspect that much of it is), you’ll be welcomed with homegrown Cincinnati warmth. As you get the feel of the place, you’ll want to come back for more.
THE RIVERSIDE runs through September 27th at the Clifton Performance Theatre in Clifton. Tickets and more information about their amazing season can be found here.