Live Bait Theater
"Ninety-nine percent of this job is jawbone," says a police officer interviewed in What Cops Know, Loyola University journalism teacher Connie Fletcher's 1990 book. "You've got to know how to talk to people, from the high-line lawyer to the gangbanger on the street."
Indeed, police work is as much about wordplay as gunplay. Whether they're trying to defuse a dangerous hostage situation, calm an incoherent witness, or simply divert themselves and their colleagues during yet another dreary, possibly dangerous day, cops do a lot of talking. And as Fletcher notes in her book's preface, "Cops know things you and I don't"--so they often have a lot to say.
In two current productions aiming to convey the special blend of boredom and terror that characterizes police officers' lives, cops talk. A lot. But what they don't say is as important as what they do. Unspoken truths constitute the intriguing subtext of Terry Curtis Fox's crafty little slice-of-suspense Cops, while the absence of a few truths mitigates the effect of Live Bait Theater's adaptation of What Cops Know, written by Kenn L.D. Frandsen from a conception by Frandsen, Mary McAuliffe, and Tom Zanarini.
The setting of both shows is Chicago's north side--Area 6, a police microcosm because of its socioeconomic sprawl. This was Fletcher's turf when she interviewed a slew of uniformed and plainclothes officers--beat and tactical cops. The book that resulted both benefited and suffered from the close access to police sources Fletcher enjoyed. While the stories have an authenticity a less privileged reporter might not have been able to achieve, Fletcher's friendliness with her interviewees generally keeps her out of problematic areas like police corruption and brutality.
The same is true of Frandsen's script, which hews close to Fletcher's text: a collage of anecdotes of varying length interspersed with pithy observations (it's perfect bathroom reading). Frandsen theatricalizes the material by creating situations in which cops can deliver these stories and statements: a farewell dinner for a retiring veteran, a card game, a stakeout, a bust, and so on.
Under these circumstances, the fine seven-person cast--Doug Spinuzza, Catherine Evans, Kim Leigh Smith, Michael Shepperd, Doris McDowell, Peter Reinemann, and the superbly restrained Deane Clark--recount a bizarre collection of tales that cumulatively suggest the surreally grim and funny life of a cop. One officer draws laughter with his story of a suspect who tried to escape out an apartment window--forgetting he was on the eighth floor. Another cop recalls a suicide whose brain popped out of his skull perfectly intact; later the same cop explains how he uses false sympathy to coax confessions out of suspects without ever actually asking a question (it avoids all that messy Miranda civil-liberties crap). A woman describes a hideous gang rape in a housing project; a 911 dispatcher remembers how she found purpose in her unhappy life after helping a desperate mother save her dying baby. And Clark as the retiring veteran, clutching his drink as he alludes vaguely to his profession's high incidence of alcoholism and divorce, fights back tears as he speaks tersely of the partner he lost in a gunfight.
Throughout these and many other anecdotes runs a basic theme: the emotional tightrope police must walk as they try to retain the ability to feel while they avoid taking things personally. Though violence is a genuine threat, the greater danger is psychological--burnout, cynicism, and finally despair.
Moment by moment, What Cops Know is strong theater. Mary McAuliffe's direction veers neatly between low-key verisimilitude and nightmarish expressionism, recalling a Robert Altman film in its improvisational feel. Robert McNaughton's ominous, densely textured sound track (featuring synthesizer music, radio calls, and pistol fire) propels the play, while Frances Maggio's costumes add credibility; and John Paoletti's dreamlike alleyway set, moodily lit by Ellen E. Jones, displays this marvelous designer's way with unusual color.
Finally, though, the work suffers from fragmentation--Frandsen's efforts to weave the loosely structured text into theatrical form don't completely succeed--and from reliance on a book that would have been better titled "What Cops Want You to Know."
A Red Orchid Theatre and Amicus Theatre Company
"What Cops Don't Want You to Know" might be the more complete title of Cops, a rarely done one-act by former Reader critic Terry Curtis Fox, now being revived by the Amicus Theatre Company and A Red Orchid Theatre. As they sit wolfing down eggs, coffee, and apple pie in an all-night eatery--Robert G. Smith's brilliantly realistic set, complete with fluorescent lights and grease stains on the kitchen wall, seems modeled on the late, lamented Snack 'n' Dine at Clark and Diversey--plainclothesmen Jack Rolf and Bob Barberson trade stories about gun-shop owners they browbeat into giving them a discount, about fellow officers who literally got caught with their pants down trying to get laid in escape-proof cage cars, about taking payoffs from pimps and sex from streetwalkers. They debate the pros and cons of "going private" as security guards and "window peepers" (being a detective may not have much meaning, but at least you don't have to maintain a Chicago residence). And later--after a tense standoff with a hostage-holding gunman, during which an innocent bystander is slain by a police bullet--they collaborate on an explanation for the inevitable internal-affairs inquiry.
Premiered by the Organic Theater Company in its mid-70s heyday, Cops is a gritty character study of two unabashedly racist bullies who've been charged with preserving some semblance of order in a crime-ridden society. Underlying their crude jokes and petty bickering is a level of bravery--and terror--that other people can only begin to imagine. Punctuated with the blue language that's been edited to a minimum in What Cops Know, Fox's drama was a drastic change from the heroic images promoted by TV shows of the day, like Ironside and Hawaii Five-O. (Some references have been updated--a sneer at sportscaster "Brent Muffdiver" now mocks "Mark Gianpusshole"--but others have not, such as a mention of the Parkway Theatre. It's a Lenscrafters now, folks.) That it maintains its punch in 1993, in the wake of shows like Hill Street Blues and NYPD Blue--whose star, Dennis Franz, played Barberson in the Organic's premiere--is testament to the play's unpretentious strength.
Lacking the broader social, philosophical, and psychological implications of similar male-bonding studies by David Mamet and Alan Bowne, Cops is still a tough, intense piece of theater that climaxes with an extraordinarily suspenseful standoff between cops and crook--as much psych-out as shoot-out. In the small, long, narrow space of A Red Orchid Theatre, it's been very well directed by Scott Tomhave, whose staging of Bowne's Snake in the Vein last season displayed a flair for the tense, quirky timing that material like this needs. Guy Van Swearingen is especially effective as Barberson, whose strategy as he talks down his desperate opponent is to remind the crook that he's also scared of the tac-squad snipers waiting outside. Mark Vallarta is believable as the cocky prankster Rolf, who sits on a cabdriver's hat just to piss the guy off; so is Brian Worrall as the swaggering patrolman who turns out to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. And Gerry Daly is thoroughly convincing as the hostage restaurant owner, popping up and down behind his counter like a Punch-and-Judy puppet.
One cautionary note: Cops should be avoided by people with an aversion to gunfire--not really dangerous, of course--and secondhand cigarette smoke. Now that's dangerous