ARLINGTON, Va., January 12, 2015 – Arlington’s distinctive American Century Theater Company launched the second half of its final season with a literal bang. With its pairing of two vintage one-act plays, TACT’s “Crime and Punishment in America,” featuring ‘Cops’ by Terry Curtis Fox, and ‘Hello Out There’ by William Saroyan highlights the downside of the American Dream and the men in blue who hold onto the dream but sometimes go over the edge trying to protect it.
Taken as a thematic pair, these two one-acts combine into a single compelling theater package with a surprising contemporary appeal and relevance. If you’re the kind of theatergoer who thrives on controversy, “Crime and Punishment” is the ticket for you.
Both plays focus on instant Law & Order, sans process or legal niceties. And, by a simple company decision, both plays inevitably prompt audience thoughts to wander from the interior Arlington’s Gunston II black box theater space to the darker sides of Ferguson Missouri, Staten Island and Cleveland Ohio.
Each play zeroes in on the desperate situation of young men who—through their own fault or not—find themselves in the sometimes dubious crosshairs of sudden justice. Or injustice. Questions TBD (To Be Decided) personally by each member of the audience
Presented first, the initial draft of Terry Curtis Fox’s 1976 drama “Cops” may actually have been penned, in whole or in part, by a young David Mamet. Both were collaborators in Chicago’s edgy new-theater collective, “Organic Theater” back in the day. But for some reason, Mamet dropped out of this particular project, allowing Fox sole credit for the final version, with Fox later achieving considerable fame on his own as a Hollywood and TV screenwriter, playwright and producer.
“Cops” in a way was ahead of its time. Its realistic, often gutter dialogue is rough, bawdy and very, very politically incorrect, something that was casually accepted in many circles in the early- to mid-1970s but apparently not protected as free speech in 2015.
Although the play scored some notice, it was not a rousing success. However, arguably, the fact that it even existed and was performed in public encouraged a rapid drift in drama, film and eventually television toward hyper-realistic violence, largely freeing dramatists to let the audience have what it wanted, good and hard.
One could even make the case that “Cops” and its eventual successors paved the way for popular crime-oriented films like Quentin Tarantino’s “Pulp Fiction,” network TV series like “NYPD Blue,” and perhaps even more tellingly, the astounding cable series, “The Wire,” whose episodes, set and filmed in nearby Baltimore, highlighted not only drug-dealing and street violence but systemic government corruption as well ranging from the level of street-cops right up to and including major political figures.
Set, appropriately, in mid-1970s Chicago—a city where, rightly or wrongly, the police force had largely been blamed for the violence that erupted amidst the protests targeting the 1968 Democratic National Convention—“Cops” is set in a prototypical, seen-better-days, neighborhood diner where two, then three casually amoral cops spend a good deal of time consuming coffee, smoking cigarettes, and abusing the help in a way they imagine is highly amusing.
The bawdy, disrespectful, colorful and actually quite funny stories and lies they tell each other, however, are suddenly interrupted by a customer who suddenly changes everything, leading to a nail-biting confrontation that sends this seemingly innocent little play into an entirely different and unexpected realm.
The second half of TACT’s “Crime and Punishment” diptych is William Saroyan’s classic 1942 one-act, “Hello Out There.” Younger theatergoers might well wonder, “why is this a ‘classic,’ and who the hell is William Saroyan?”
The short answer is that Saroyan, not too long ago, was considered one of America’s top writers, a controversial but popular yarn-spinner, playwright and novelist who passed away in 1981. I remember reading some of his work in my 1960s high school English anthology and admiring his work. Likely, there’s not a public school text in America now that even mentions this Armenian-American writer’s name.
“Hello Out There” is a short, Thornton Wilder-type play set in a specific place that could just as well be Anywhere, U.S.A. In this case, it’s a small town in Texas where a young drifter-gambler as been tossed in a small town jail for what may or may not have been the crime of rape. Things don’t look good for our anti-hero in this play. But the friendship he strikes with a lonely girl just might be the ticket to his freedom and happiness.
As is generally customary with TACT productions, both plays have some age on them. In addition, they’re generally neglected today for one reason or the other even thought their action and subject matter hasn’t ceased to remain relevant.
However, TACT’s choices in this current dual production proved incredibly intuitive in light of current events. Both plays are heavily involved with both the actual and philosophical issues of, well, crime and punishment. Both center on troubled characters that may or may not really be villains.
But here’s the twist. Both plays, at least at the time they were written, at least seem to have presumed that all cast members would be white. By the simple act of casting a black actor as the trouble maker in each play. Voilà! Now each of these dusty plays becomes brand new again, instantly conjuring up visions of Ferguson, New York, Cleveland and wherever else this week’s real or imagined racial or ethnic outrage might be taking place.
We say “real or imagined” advisedly here. With a considerable amount of evidence already in, it would appear that the Ferguson cop was actually within his rights taking the action that he did. But contrary-wise, it would appear that the police involved in the Cleveland and NYC incidents are actually in much more ambiguous territory at best.
In any event, with a little help from outside agitators with additional agendas, all three incidents have sparked reactions ranging from passionate discussions to violent outrage, all zeroing in on questions of police powers and racial animosity.
Which, as we noted, is why TACT’s casting choices here were both deliberately provocative but timely nonetheless.
Every summer for at least a dozen years we’ve reviewed the new to newish plays in each annual edition of the Contemporary American Theater Festival (CATF) in nearby Shepherdstown, West Virginia. Nearly every CATF play chosen purposely concentrates directly or indirectly on a significant contemporary issue at its core—an issue that’s likely to assure that audiences will debate the point well into the night, long after the final curtain has fallen.
That’s why CATF generally markets itself as “Think Theater.” And it’s a term, we think, that describes TACT’s unique current production almost perfectly. If you like to discuss or argue about plays that you’ve seen, Gunston II is the place to be this month.
As far as the actual plays themselves are concerned, both casts were at the top of their respective games on opening night. In spite of the fact that many things have changed in the world of law and order since each play was written, both the settings and the acting in each play made it seem as if the action were unfolding in early 2015, which is what made the whole evening rather eerie at times.
Of the two plays, “Cops” was clearly the more visceral and gut-wrenching of the two. With regard to the acting and characterization in this production of the play, there was little to quarrel with, however you end up regarding the subject matter.
The comic banter among Chicago cops Bob Barberson (Anthony van Eyck), Jack Rolf (Bruce Alan Rauscher) and Gene Czerwicki (Dan Alexander) was over-the-top funny, a bit like “All in the Family” on steroids and without censors. Like Archie Bunker, all three are the kind of characters that make us cringe and laugh uproariously at the same time. But in this case, all three can morph into entirely different characters at a moment’s notice, something these fine actors clearly have grasped since that’s exactly what they do.
Adding to the realism of this play, background characters like the Cabdriver (Rob Heckart), the “Omelette Eater” (Eileen M. Farrell), Mickey the waitress (‘70s style) or server (2015) (Anne De Michele) and the hapless short order chef and diner owner George (Nello DeBlasio) all rang very Chicago and very true, right down to those famous short vowels.
And as that dubious an ultimately scary “Customer,” Chaz Pando did a superb job portraying the wildly careening character and emotions of a young man who, due to his own virtually autonomic impulses, finds himself instantaneously immersed in a desperate situation that’s way over his head.
Director Stephen Jarrett in particular gets a hat tip for somehow containing the wild chaos that erupts in “Cops” while still creating the sensation that everything is spinning hopelessly out of control, in particular the wild outbursts of frontier-style gunplay that give the action a serious edge.
Contrasting with “Cops,” William Saroyan’s “Hello Out There” treats the question of justice more quietly and with more restraint. But this play’s ultimate outcome is ultimately just as disquieting.
While the setting of “Cops” is a surprisingly grungy but realistic diner, “Hello’s” setting—a single jail cell roughly centered on an almost completely sterile and colorless stage—is downright claustrophobic, emanating a real sense of the kind of alienation that began to overwhelm writers, artists and many everyday Americans as the 1940s gradually morphed into the uneasy calm of the 1950s.
The jail, we discover, is in a small, off-the-beaten path, rural Texas town, the kind of place that, in 1942, could still feel more than comfortable with vigilante-style justice, particularly where outsiders were concerned.
Saroyan’s characters, while realistic and believable, are also types who don’t have names. At the center of the action is The Young Gambler (Bru Ajueyitsi), the guy we see alone in that rudimentary prison cell as the lights come up. The Gambler is articulate, but nervous, mainly because—as we soon learn—he’s in the slammer for allegedly raping a local resident’s wife, and knows that justice in this part of the world can often be delivered by other means than by a jury of one’s peers.
As we’ve already indicated, TACT kicks this sensation up a notch by casting a black actor in the part, leading us to instantly understand that this Gambler might not make it through the night in this small Texas town.
The casting here is also spot-on in terms of recent history, specifically the bizarre and apparently false “Rolling Stone” exposé of an alleged frat house gang rape just down the road at the University of Virginia. Both the frat house and Saroyan’s Gambler are in essentially the same pickle here. Is the rape story true, or is it perhaps a lie to cover up some other behavior.
In the Gambler’s case, he’s comfortable admitting he had sex with his female accuser. But he claims that things only got nasty when he learned she was expecting money for granting her favors, and decided to cry “rape” when remuneration was not forthcoming.
The Gambler may or may not be lying. But there’s one undeniable fact in this play: In this “he said, she said” setup, it’s clear that no one in this town is going to believe the outsider’s version of the story, whatever his race. That the Gambler in this production is black simply serves to compound the danger he’s in.
The one ray of hope for the Gambler is his chance meeting with The Girl (Rachel Caywood), a forlorn young woman in her late teens. Apparently the subject of ridicule in the small town, she supplies the cooking and maid service for the jailhouse for a pittance per day—much of which, we learn, her brutal father manages to appropriate.
He recognizes her vulnerability immediately, and tries to turn her secret longing for escape to his advantage. It’s the strange, slow struggle of both characters to find not only common ground but a chance for liberation that gives this simple but suspenseful little play a real poignancy. It’s a little like Sartre’s “No Exit.” There seems to be no chance of escape from the situation, a dark, physical and mental hole where, in the end, you yourself can be your own worst enemy.
Bru Ajueyitsi and Rachel Caywood are quietly sensational in their respective roles. They are ably backed up by Ric Anderson, Bruce Alan Rauscher and Madelyn Farris in small but key roles.
Ellen Dempsey’s quiet direction gave the opening night performance of the play a quiet, minimalist dignity that placed deeply seated emotions in the forefront.
Since TACT’s pair of one-acts were bound to stir the audience pot, the company helpfully chose to have an afterward “TalkBack” on opening night, this one featuring former Fairfax County and current Montgomery County Chief of Police Tom Manger. The Chief dealt both artfully and informatively with a variety of lively questions. Many of these understandably revolved around “Cops” and the question of whether this 1970s play was still a valid depiction of today’s police force, particularly in light of Ferguson et. al.
TACT has scheduled additional talkbacks, one with the directors and cast after the January 15 performance and another with Chief Manger after the January 18 performance. The company may schedule additional talkbacks as well, and urges patrons to check their website and Facebook pages for updates.
Rating: *** ½ (Three and one-half out of four stars)
The American Century Theater’s two one-act “Crime and Punishment” plays—“Cops” and “Hello Out There” continue at Arlington’s Gunston Art Center’s Theatre II through January 31, 2015. Address: 2700 South Lang St., Arlington, VA 22206.
Regular show times: Thursday through Saturday evenings at 8 p.m., with additional matinee performances on Saturdays and Sundays at 2:30 p.m. An additional “pay as you can” performance will be presented Wednesday, January 14, 2015 at 8 p.m.
Tickets, information and directions: Call TACT at 703-998-4555. Or visit TACT’s website via this link.