The most pertinent questions a director can ask before mounting a production are “Why this play?” and “Why now?” For director Woodie King Jr. and the Cocteau Rep, as they decided to present British playwright Barrie Keeffe’s 1976 Sus, answering these questions must have been a no-brainer. Sus‘s examination of racial profiling and police brutality has an obvious parallel in New York’s battles against similar manifestations. The recent riots in Oldham between the South Asian community and right-wing groups underscore the urgent need for perspective. Set in ’70s London, the play allows New Yorkers a bit of critical distance on an impassioned debate that’s very close to home, and the opportunity to reflect on how little has changed. It’s unclear, however, what new perspective this production adds to the fracas, and King’s direction doesn’t do much to illuminate the play’s few subtle points.
Sus is a tense, claustrophobic drama that takes place in a police interrogation room on the night of Margaret Thatcher’s election. It zooms in on a pair of constables, Wilby and Karn, as they question a Jamaican immigrant named Delroy. In 1976 London’s context of rising immigration, racial discrimination, and unemployment, it has become customary for people of color to be picked up on “sus”—short for “suspicion.” Naturally, since this is a paranoid function of law enforcement like arresting people for “DWB,” the police abuse the practice, and innocent people are frequently detained, falsely accused, and brutalized. But this evening, after much hemorrhaging, Delroy’s wife has died. In one predictable revelation after another, it comes to light that the police suspect that Delroy murdered his pregnant wife because he couldn’t afford another child on his miserable unemployment checks. Meanwhile, the cops are more interested in monitoring the incoming election results and hinting to Delroy that if Thatcher and the Tories win, “[his] rights might all be candyfloss tomorrow.”
Delroy bears all this good cop/bad cop abuse stoically, with only a few outbursts. Though he mistrusts the coppers thoroughly, he accepts their claim that his wife is dead, though they offer only her bloodstained nightie as proof. They reduce him to tears by divulging this information. Perhaps it qualifies as racial profiling to say this, but his docility and martyrishness seem strikingly un-Jamaican. This lapse calls attention to the lack of nuance in King’s direction. However evil their deeds, a director (or a protester, for that matter) ought to be generous enough to present the bad guys as humanly as possible. But King allows Cocteau Rep veteran Harris Berlinsky a character-flattening degree of added laughter, snickering, and gloating about the cruelty to which the officers plan to subject Delroy, reducing Officer Karn to a Villain (and an Australian one, too, judging from his accent). Jason Crowl, as Wilby, nails down some of that veddy English detachment, and has a bit more to chew on, motivation-wise. During the interrogation we find out that demonstrators smashed the head of his pet dog in a doorjamb. Though it sounds really difficult to do if we don’t crush our disbelief in the same door frame, we’re provided with a bit of background and a real, if pat, explanation for his seething racism. Jolie Garrett’s West Indian accent sounds forced, triply underscoring how small distinctions got lost in the translation.
Speaking of getting lost, David Rabe, the renowned playwright responsible for Hurlyburly, In the Boom Boom Room, and other successful dramas, has apparently gotten lost up his own rectum. In the first act of his lengthy stinker, The Dog Problem, an Italian American street tough named Ronnie threatens to kill a guy named Ray who reportedly forced the punk’s sister to have sex with a dog. Or maybe the dog was just in the room. Ray convinces him to back down, and Ronnie calls his mobster uncle Malvolio, who has to make a decision about how to handle the situation. The issue for the mobster is not whether the bestial rape should be avenged, or even whether it occurred, but Ronnie’s embarrassment at his threat not being taken seriously. Uncle Malvolio decides that Ray’s beloved dog has to die. In the second act, Ray is married to Ronnie’s sister, a defiant, transformational leap that goes unexplained. This is all supposed to play as comedy, but the jokes must not have been getting paid enough, because they wisely walked out before the play started. An understandable reaction if you have to be spoken by an ensemble as second-rate and unengaged as Dog‘s cast. Even Buddy, as the dog, can’t suppress a few hearty yawns during the one scene he handily steals. You’re not even safe if you tune out the play. The designers flaunt their lack of taste, especially the lighting designer, who liberally slathers the stage in hideous broken-glass gobos and neonlike red and blue stripes. “Why this play?” you might lament. “Why now?”