Sign up for our free newsletter
By the time Terry Curtis Fox’s one-act play Cops appeared in 1976, the Adam-12 school of cop drama was already on its last pair of Brogans. No longer did clean-cut, lantern-jawed patrolmen steer their black-and-whites through an equally monochromatic moral universe. Writers like Joseph Wambaugh had murked things up nicely by then with more realistic depictions of violence, profanity and police corruption. Fox, who went on to work on Hill Street Blues, wasn’t the first, or best, writer to attempt to bring this grubbier sensibility to the stage, but inasmuch as Cops can be said to represent the transition from the era of Joe Friday to that of Jimmy McNulty, it’s an interesting, unpretentious little piece of theater that’s over in 75 minutes. You won’t find much in it that’s particularly novel or profound, but don’t go telling that to American Century’s production, which seems convinced that the show’s a precious and unjustly overlooked gem. It takes the show about half the running time to get over that; in the early going, director Stephen Jarrett and his two leads (Regen Wilson and Brian Razzino) approach Fox’s dialogue with an awed reverence it never really merits. We spend long minutes watching Wilson and Razzino hurl themselves into the script as if each line were an intricately wrought masterpiece of Mametspeak, or a wild, woolly, reference-packed Tarantino riff, but Fox’s stuff is more workmanlike and demands a lighter, less go-for-broke touch. When he enters about midway through, John C. Bailey also goes big, but he manages to make it work because that choice seems specifically matched to his character, a beat cop given to long streams of florid invective. It’s right about then that the bullets start flying, which is legitimately startling (and, in Gunston’s intimate space, fucking loud) and which introduces a welcome, though given the multiple gun barrels aimed at multiple heads, perhaps inevitable suspense. Yet even here the production’s deliberate pacing occasionally causes the tension to slacken, which is damned puzzling (because: Guns! Heads!) and the last few minutes, which must have seemed unusual and unsettling in 1976, are now neither. In fact, there’s a lot about the show that seems familiar, but given the playwright’s long career in television, it isn’t really surprising that Cops, um, isn’t really surprising. What it is, though, is solidly built. And after all, the writer’s strike means it may be months before we see any fresh Law and Order franchises, including the lousy one that’s always about panties.