REVIEW: "Cops and Friends of Cops" at First Look Buffalo
By Anthony Chase
First Look Buffalo Stage Productions makes its debut with one of those plays that comes with a warning: “GUN SHOTS ON STAGE USING LIVE BLANKS.”
Okay, it’s a warning, but it’s also a come on, sort of like “No one under 18 admitted.” Something exciting is going to happen.
The play is Cops and Friends of Cops by Ron Klier and it uses all the twists and turnarounds of pulp fiction to lure us into its narrative spell.
It’s the oldest setup in the book: a guy walks into a bar.
The “guy” is a resolute but unassuming young man named “Paul,” played by Anthony J. Grande. He wants to play the jukebox. He wants to have a beer. The bar is a simply designed and effective set that makes good use of Compass Performing Arts Center (TheaterLoft) by Bob Rusch and Lauren Woods.
The bartender, a guy named “Dom,” played by John Patrick Patti, is just setting up. Thursday is not his usual day, but today is a special “Cops and Friends of Cops” Thursday, and it seems that the gentlemen in blue had a habit of harassing the usual Thursday bartender, a woman. In fact, Dom thinks that Paul should leave. This is not the place for a civilian.
Paul won’t leave. The twists that ensue take us on an unexpected journey.
Klier gives us clues that we only appreciate in retrospect. Paul claims that he didn’t notice the sign outside that advertises “Cops and Friends of Cops” day. Moments later, he seems to recall it perfectly. Why is he here? Is it really just by chance?
Three other customers arrive, all cops. There’s “Emmett,” played by Bob Rusch; “Sal,” played by Dan Morris; and “Roosevelt,” played by Shakora Purks.
From the banter and bickering of Dom and the three cops, we learn that the world of law enforcement has its own rules, its own sometimes dubious ethics, and a distinct, competitive, and sometimes shifting power structure.
The play gains momentum when Sal seems to recognize Paul. He digs into him with all the charm of the bad cop in the interrogation room. Paul calmly denies ever having seen Paul before.
And that is as much plot as I can give you without spoiling the fun of a play that creates the effect of driving past an accident and not being able to look away, or of riding on the Cyclone at Coney Island. You can’t stand it, but you also can’t resist it.
The script provides five actors with the opportunity to play roles with dramatic meat on them: moments of histrionic passion, moments of soulful introspection. What the play lacks in dramatic subtlety, it makes up for with the pure unmitigated entertainment value of storytelling.
The situation forced by bringing these specific people into a bar exposes divisions both personal and cultural. Age, power, race, and class, all figure into the mix.
Dom the bartender may seem to be an innocent bystander, but he is not. As in a play by J.B. Priestly (author of An Inspector Calls) everyone is implicated. John Patrick Patti plays the role with increasing exasperation as he realizes the futility of his every attempt to control situations.
Anthony J. Grande has recently been earning attention in a succession of prominent roles: the elusive love interest in Significant Other at BUA; Mr. Sloane, the elusive object of desire in Joe Orton’s Entertaining Mr. Sloane at Irish Classical; Louis, the evasive lover in Angels in America at Second Generation; and his amazing emergency take over for an ailing actor in Jason Mitchell’s The Boys Upstairs at BUA, again as the elusive love interest. Here he gives a steady and beautifully modulated performance as Paul. I can’t get specific without spoiling everything, but let me just reveal that his grasp on his life might not be as secure and balanced as it seems when he first walks into Bill’s Big Basement Bar in St. Louis. The details will make you cringe.
Bob Rusch also gives a strong performance as antagonist “Emmett,” a guy whose arrogance is unearned but reinforced by the fact that he is a cop. Indeed, right and wrong are often determined by who has a gun in the world of this play. Emmett’s rationalizations sometimes seem wise and sometimes seem delusional. Rusch walks this precarious and shifting moral line skillfully, even at times of … let’s say, physical discomfort.
As Sal and Roosevelt, Dan Morris and Shakora Parks make a kind of Abbott and Costello of the cop set. The difference is that the comic rivalry between them, fueled by differences of race and age, is occasionally terrifying. In one prolonged episode, they absurdly forget the imminent danger in the room and allow their conflict to degenerate into juvenile squabbling.
Stage combat by Adam Rath is an important stage element and is executed believably. Prepare to wince frequently.
Director Drew McCabe keeps the action proceeding from twist to twist without flagging. He guides the actors toward clear characterizations and successfully walks the line of absurdity implicit in Klier’s narrative, for instance the ample opportunities the cops have to end a dangerous situation with a single shot.
Absurdity is at the heart of this tragic play with dark comic overtones. In the final scene, in many ways, playwright Klier’s most eloquent, we realize that issues may be concluded, but by design, nothing is reconciled. Emmett’s final question; Sal’s final answer; Roosevelt’s ultimate status; the outcome of Paul’s journey; even Dom’s sense of self are all left unresolved.
Cops and Friends of Cops continues through February 1st. Thursday – Saturday at 8 p.m. Compass Performing Arts Center, 545 Elmwood Ave. (800-838-3006). www.FirstLookBuffalo.com