America is engaged in an agonizing public discussion of the roles, and prerogatives, of our police force in light of recent deaths in Ferguson, Missouri and New York City. Does American Century Theater’s doubleheader, Terry Curtis Fox’s Cops and William Saroyan’s Hello Out There, advance that discussion, and enlighten the way we think about law enforcement? Thank the Lord God Almighty, no. Instead, they push our buttons, make us sweat and give us the goose, just like good theater should.
Cops, the longer and more engaging of the two pieces, gives us nobody to like and nobody to root for, thus allowing us to enjoy the gruesome spectacle that unfolds before us without moral compunction. Jack Rolf (Bruce Alan Rauscher) and Bob Barberson (Anthony van Eyck) are two bullies with a badge – Rolf is almost psychotic – who are large and in charge at a Chicago diner. Rolf abuses a local cabbie (Rob Heckart); Rolf and Barberson tease and annoy the waitress, Mickey (Ann De Michele) and push around the owner, George (Nella DeBlasio). When Gene Czerwicki (Dan Alexander, substituting with honor for the late, great Bill Karukas), another cop with the same brutalizing instinct as his colleagues but without the skills or knowledge, wanders in, the three fall into a swamp of stories, full of racism, homophobia, and similar invective. Oh – and the stories are funny, too.
Fox takes a lot of time to set this up, and if the mean-spiritedness of his characters wasn’t so amusing, or if the performances weren’t as good, the first half of the play would be kind of a drag. But the American Century Theater production moves vigorously, and Rauscher, van Eyck and Alexander give their characters energy sufficient to keep our attention even though we don’t know where the play is going.
Then a customer (Chaz D. Pando) draws a gun and shoots one of the cops. The play thereafter molts into a tense hostage drama, with threats, gunfire, and…well, and people dying. Pando’s character is a desperate man; the stakes can never be higher for anyone than they are for him. He makes impossible demands, and dreams of his escape against all odds. The cops reply in snarls.
You can guess how this ends, or if you can’t, you can go see it. Let me dissect the Stephen Jarrett-directed performances. They are all superb. De Michele has mastered Chicago dialect; her voice is the same voice I heard when I stumbled, bleary-eyed, into Western Avenue diners back in the old days. Heckert is convincing not only as the beleaguered cabdriver but as the voice of a cop leading a troupe of cops surrounding the diner. Alexander is perfect as the career mediocrity in a uniform, who wears his inadequacies on his sleeve while he sneers at the people he serves.
DeBlasio’s George is a bowl full of moral jelly; his panting subservience, both to the cops and, later, to the criminal gave us a perfect picture of a man who is power’s pawn. Pando at the outset seems immensely dangerous but later displays his weaknesses; he is behind the bar for most of the show but I never had any trouble figuring out who he is, or what pushes his buttons. Eileen M. Farrell has only one line, but it’s a doozy, and she does it perfectly. I had a little trouble buying into van Eyck’s portrayal of Barberson at first, but eventually he sunk in, and he is as convincing as everyone else in this play.
I want to devote a full paragraph in homage to Bruce Rauscher. It is less than he deserves, but more than he will get in most publications. There are only a few actors who can make you sweat with fear; Jim Jorgenson is one, and so is Joe Brack. Rauscher is in that class, in that his malevolence can be of the no-nonsense variety (as it is in the second play, Hello Out There) or it can be extremely playful, as it is here. Rauscher’s semi-psychotic cop reminded me of the semi-psychotic cop Mel Gibson played in “Lethal Weapon” except – and I know I’ll get some disagreement here – Rauscher is better at it.
Cops is beautifully written, superbly produced, authentic in every particular (the attention to detail in Trena M. Weiss’ set is incredible), and acted with great specificity, intention and truthfulness.
I could say the same thing about the melancholy coda, Hello Out There by the great (and prolific) writer William Saroyan. But while American Century Theater’s great efforts yield a lion in Cops, here they seem to present – a mouse.
We are in 1941, and an African-American man (Bru Ajueyitsi) is in a Texas jail, charged with rape. This, in pre-war Texas, is grounds for lynching, and he knows it. His story is pretty straightforward, and even possibly true: he fell in with a woman (Madelyn Farris) who sought to make the beast with two backs with him; when he complied, she asked him for money; when he refused, she filed a rape complaint.
A young woman (Rachel Caywood), believing not only in the man’s story but in his promise to love her, runs to find her father’s gun to get him out. Ric Anderson plays the complainant’s cream-of-wheat-for-brains husband as the sort of man who knows his wife plays around but doesn’t want to hear the details, and Rauscher plays a man for whom violence is part of the daily routine, just as coffee might be.
In 1941 it was a bold thing to say that a white woman accusing a black man of rape might be fabricating the charge, and to place white racism in the middle of a larger stream of social rigidity, self-righteousness and self-regard.
Caywood’s character is as much a misfit as Ajueyitsi’s, and although it appears as though the young man’s race may be his ticket to an early death, the young woman’s characteristics – she is plain, not too bright, and filled with compassion – promise her a living death in rural Texas society for as long as she draws breath.
Cops and Hello Out There
Closes Jan 31
American Century Theater
Gunston Arts Center
2700 S. Lang Street
1 hour, 52 minutes with 1 intermission
Thursdays thru Sundays
Tickets or call 703-228-1850
But – listen to me, complaining about dessert after having had a great feast. Go out to Gunston 2 to see Cops, and afterward catch your breath by seeing a minor play by a great writer, performed well.
Crime and Punishment in America:
Cops, by Terry Curtis Fox. Directed by Stephen Jarrett, featuring Eileen M. Farrell, Ann De Michele, Nello DeBlasio, Rob Heckart, Bruce Alan Rauscher, Anthony van Eyck, Dan Alexander and Chaz D. Pando.
Hello Out There, by William Saroyan. Directed by Ellen Dempsey, featuring Bru Ajueyitsi, Rachel Caywood, Ric Anderson, Bruce Alan Rauscher and Madelyn Farris.
For both plays: Set design by Trena M. Weiss, who also served as technical director; costume design by Marilyn Johnson; lighting design by Peter Caress; sound design by Ed Moser (who also served as production manager) and properties design by Kevin Laughon. Lindsey E. Moore was the stage manager and associate production manager.