By Terry Curtis Fox
Directed by Stephen Jarrett
Presented by American Century Theater
Reviewed by Steven McKnight
News flash! Police officers can be complicated, flawed, and even corrupt human beings at times. While that revelation may not strike you as particularly compelling or controversial, it had more force in 1976 when Cops, the new production at American Century Theater, was first staged. Absent that impact, the audience is left with an earnest and professional production of a flawed play that, while containing moments of humor and tension, ultimately amounts to a misfire.
Cops aspires to be a realistic, gritty, and ultimately shocking portrayal of police officers Set in a Chicago diner, the first half of the play consists of a long character piece revolving around two cynical and world-weary detectives, Jack Rolf (Regen Wilson) and Bob Barberson (Brian Razziono). We see them bullying, cursing, drinking, gambling, and engaging in bigoted discussions using the realistic yet stylistic form of street dialogue often associated with David Mamet. While Mr. Razziono shows some balanced restraint in handling his role, Mr. Wilson’s portrayal is so broad that it approaches caricature.
The opening section of the play has some entertaining scenes, especially an initial confrontation with a comically frustrated cab driver (Bill Gordon) who is the victim of police abuse. The long setup starts to drag despite some fine supporting work by Rob Heckart as George, the diner’s owner and detective admirer, and John C. Bailey, who nails his role as a uniformed patrolman.
In the second half of the play, events in the dinner suddenly spiral into a violent confrontation with a suspicious loner. Gunfire ensues and a hostage-taking standoff results. While this portion is initially gripping, the play descends into contradictory dialogue and illogical actions that undermine the dramatic force of the story.
Cops was written by Terry Curtis Fox, who later gained fame as a writer and story editor for the acclaimed TV series Hill Street Blues. The original Chicago production, with cast members including Dennis Franz and Joe Mantegna, won considerable acclaim and traveled to New York.
While the Artistic Director defends Cops as a “worthy” play because of its influential role in ushering in a new era of realism in handling police stories, this claim is overstated. A few years previously movie audiences had already seen a police protagonist portrayed as an alcoholic short-tempered bigot [Popeye Doyle in The French Connection (1971)] as well as a story featuring rampant police corruption [Serpico (1973)]. On TV, Joseph Wambaugh’s classic anthology series Police Story (1973-77) had already torn down most of the barriers to realistic portrayal of police officers in an urban environment.
Once the value of the play as a historical piece is put aside, the audience is left with an inconsistent work that feels padded and ultimately contrived. Absurdities include a long distance exchange of cigarettes and lighter early in the shootout, crouching behind chairs that offer no protection or disguise, some contradictory dialogue, and a final resolution that is unrealistically written. When one of the detectives argues with the gunman in a way that makes him less likely to surrender peacefully, it’s hard to avoid rolling one’s eyes.
Director Stephen Jarrett does his best to cover up the flaws in the script and he is aided by a talented production staff. The Chicago diner created by set designer Trena Weiss-Null is utterly convincing and Michael Null’s sound design enhances the work. Still, police stories are rare on stage because they aren’t nearly as well-suited to a single set piece as mysteries or legal dramas.
Ultimately, the best audience for this work might be the type of people who enjoy horror movies. If you can overlook the absurd ways victims put themselves at risk and you enjoy the tension and violence, even when you can see the “surprise” ending fifteen minutes in advance, Cops has some entertainment value. On the other hand, if you have a relentlessly logical mind that makes it hard to enjoy implausible actions, you should probably stay home and watch some of the superior police dramas available on television.
Warning: Play contains harsh language, loud gunfire, intense onstage violence, and smoking.
Running Time: 1:05 (no intermission)
Where: American Century Theater at Gunston Theatre II
When: Now thru Jan. 26, 2008
Contact Info: Order tickets from ACT by phone, (703) 998-4555, or by email: firstname.lastname@example.org.