Cops and Friends of Cops
VS. Theatre Company, which focuses on challenging works that are either world premieres or plays new to L.A., has settled into its first theatrical home following eight years as an itinerant group. The company's first offering in the handsome facility that formerly housed the Black Dahlia Theatre Company is writer-director Ron Klier's testosterone-charged drama "Cops and Friends of Cops."
There's a hint of David Mamet sensibility in this hard-hitting tale of three police officers, a bartender and a patron who interact in a rural Missouri bar on a fateful evening.
The taut ensemble piece explores themes of moral ambiguity, bigotry, suppressed tensions in the stressful law enforcement profession and the challenge of moving past losses and regrets. World-weary bartender Dom (Paul Vincent O'Connor) attempts to warn first-time customer Paul (Johnny Clark) that he'd be better off not hanging around for the bar's weekly "Cops and Friends of Cops" night. He says that fist fights or worse forms of violence often break out amid the cops, and that this joint simply isn't a comfortable place for outsiders to hang out. Paul, who seems preoccupied and somewhat mysterious, insists on staying for a beer and playing the jukebox.
When the local policemen arrive for their weekly ritual of boozing, bickering and one-upmanship, conflicts ensue in short order. Burly Sal (Gareth Williams), who is close to retirement, habitually makes sarcastic racial slurs, in the presence of his younger African-American partner Roosevelt (Rolando Boyce).
The cocky officer Emmett (Andrew Hawkes) shows an instant curiosity in the soft-spoken stranger, Paul. Emmett's gesture of buying the fellow a drink seems subtly aggressive, in an ominous way. Beyond this, the less said about the plot developments the better, as the piece hinges on startling revelations and a growing sense of dread.
Klier elicits layered and highly convincing portrayals form the actors, who do masterful jobs of revealing the intricacies of their characters one layer at a time. In the initially most subdued role, the superb Clark subtly but tellingly conveys the complexities of Paul, as his back story provides the impetus for the play's central conflicts and ultimate climax.
O'Connor convincingly elucidates he multiple facets of the gruff bar attendant-cynical and tough when he needs to be, and a compassionate peacemaker at unexpected moments. Hawkes is a powerhouse as a man dogged by mistakes of the past, finally having to face up to them. Williams offers a splendid turn as a man too wrapped up in deeply entrenched attitudes to realize when his mouthing off crosses the line.
Boyce superbly projects the voice of reason amid the policemen, as long as this man is able to exercise patience.
Danny Cistone's naturalistic production design, dominated by a dive-bar set in which you can almost see the roaches and smell stale beer, is highly evocative.
Likewise superb are Derrick McDaniel's lighting, Klier's sound, Gelareh Khalioun's costumes, and Ned Mochel's "violence design" (presumably meaning the extraordinary fight choreography).
This production serves as an auspicious christening for VS. Theatre Company's well-equipped and appealing new artistic abode.
"Cops and Friends of Cops" runs through June 1 at the VS. Theatre, 5453 W. Pico Blvd., L.A. For information or tickets, call 323-739-4411 or visit www.brownpapertickets.com.