With its double feature Crime and Punishment in America, the American Century Theater presents two one-act plays that explore extreme cynicism about the justice system and those who uphold it. The company has previously produced both Cops and Hello Out There, but this pairing intends to add to the national conversation about police brutality and unequal treatment under the law. While it leaves the audience with a lot to gnaw on as far as current events go, the viewing experience is often unpleasant.
Cops, written by Terry Curtis Fox in 1976, takes place in a Chicago diner on a rainy day. For a good portion of the play, a number of cops socialize in the diner, terrorizing the waitress (Ann De Michele) and displaying unlimited reserves of boorish bigotry. One of the cops, Jack Rolf (Bruce Alan Rauscher) begins the play by relishing an opportunity to sit on another man’s hat. In his conversations with his partner, Bob Barberson (Anthony van Eyck), Rolf appears like a petty tyrant. At least he’s smarter than the beat cop (Dan Alexander, a standout with a nuanced performance of an unlikable doofus) who joins them for some pie. These are not the kind of guys you want protecting you. These are the guys you want protection from.
Their discussion goes on and on, making sure to insult every interest group along the way. This kind of verisimilitude gets boring, despite the actors’ chemistry, and as they talk for so long that the play loses its steam, viewers may begin reading the diner’s menu for respite (did you know, for instance, that you could buy three pancakes for 75 cents in 1973?). But the play stands on shakier ground still when the action begins in earnest.
A sudden event with a customer (Chaz Pando) forces the cops to act as tough as they claim they are. It doesn’t heroize them just because their guns are out, but the tone of the violence feels odd, levered in for effect. Director Stephen Jarrett draws out the anxiety, but then again, shootouts are inherently tense. The concepts explored in Cops are fascinating—-including the interplay of the press and the notion of whether we truly need bad men who are willing to protect us from other bad men, as Marty from True Detective claims. Watching them play out on stage, though, feels like work.
During intermission, the crew pulls off an incredible set shift. The realistic, charming diner from set designer Trena M. Weiss becomes a prison cell. Lighting designer Peter Caress makes the cell haunting, with bars extending out to the audience and a sense of gorgeous gloom.
When Hello Out There starts, The Young Gambler (Bru Ajueyitsi) is in the cell. Ajeuyitsi plays the Gambler as a charmer who knows what people want to hear, so it seems plausible that he could survive in his line of work without luck for years, as he claims. In the play, written by William Saroyan in 1941, the Gambler says he’s in jail under a phony charge. A woman (Madelyn Farris) has accused him of rape because he didn’t pay her off after they slept together. Now her husband (Ric Andersen) wants his revenge. All the while, the Gambler is stuck in a cell, knowing crowds outside are agitating to lynch him.
“Hello out there!” he calls, and a slight 17-year-old (Rachel Caywood), who works in the jail, responds. She is transfixed by him. The audience is, too. He can switch between fear and bravado at a moment’s notice, and they feel equally tender. Ajueyitsi renders a desperate man who holds onto his dignity, convinced he might have another ace up his sleeve.
The characters who surround him have none of that nuance. The girl is a quivering, worshipful puddle of middle-school hormones, the wife so transparently evil that it renders any question of the Gambler’s innocence moot, and the husband a hot-headed fool. It’s a shame that Ellen Dempsey’s direction doesn’t delve into the ambiguities of what it means to answer when someone says “hello out there.”
Cops and Hello Out There are both concerned with the stories people tell themselves to make it through the day and what happens when those narratives collide with the barrel of a gun. The double-feature is ambitious, but doesn’t always hit its target.
At Gunston Theatre II, January 9 – 31, at 8 p.m. on weeknights and Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays. $32 -$40.
Photo by Johannes Markus