You can see why Logan Brown’s How to Act Around Cops was one of the hot items in last month’s Fringe Festival: Ingeniously and effectively, it jerks the audience’s chain in steady yanks for its 85-minute playing time. Its only problem is that no one remembered to hook the chain to anything at the other end, so you don’t feel the yank as intensely as you should. That lapse of memory, unlike the temporary amnesia two of Brown’s characters proffer as an alibi, is understandable. We’ve been so deluged with variants of the noir genre that its assumptions—everybody’s got a guilty secret, sooner or later everything will turn nasty—have become tics. It’s not easy for perpetrators of entertainment to remember that they need to slow down every so often and pull over for a reality check.
Two seemingly nice young guys get stopped by a rookie patrolman on a deserted road. Our first, natural assumption is that they’re innocent of anything except maybe speeding, and that their frenzied reactions are simply comic—the neurotic earmarks of our guilt-ridden, post-Freudian civilization. As the action proceeds, however, nervous innocence slides imperceptibly into guilt. Before long, drugs, firearms, kidnapping, rape, and various forms of betrayal and murder have rolled out of the simple situation. By the end, not only are the innocents no longer who we thought they were, but some additional characters whom we initially knew to be innocent have become guilty as well.
This is witty in conception. Tautly written, and snappily played under Jon Schumacher’s direction, it ought to be equally witty in execution as well. The flaw is one of plausibility: There’s no reason to believe that the characters would embark on the increasingly elaborate series of schemes and ploys that Brown uses to ratchet up the tension, or that the people with whom they forge a constantly shifting set of alliances would go along with them. You can only take the piece seriously as a fleeting diversion within its genre, which kills any larger claims you might want to make for it artistically. Fringe reviewers applied the word “Ortonesque,” but Brown lacks Orton’s epigrammatic panache and his taste for linguistic bizarrerie, as well as his steely eye for social comment. There’s also the problem of sustaining attention when the characters are all both frankly unsympathetic and largely undeveloped—not to mention a sneaking suspicion of authorial arrogance, in a playwright who names his central character (a plausible mythomane) Barnum. There’s an audience born every minute, but once had, it’s unlikely to come back for a second helping.
Schumacher’s skillfully flat-toned staging, like the script, dangles some loose threads. The clever use of minimal lighting, mostly from onstage “practicals,” is weakened by the absence of additional lights we know would be there, like the headlights and flasher on the cop car in the opening scene. Schumacher likes to linger, sometimes an unwisely long while, over the unearthly silences in between the speedy blips of action and dialogue. And he occasionally reaffirms the play’s dependence on silver-screen sensibilities by making events happen much more smoothly than they would in life; it really isn’t that easy to get out of a car unassisted when you’re handcuffed and terrified.
Still, Schumacher’s production has a stylistic completeness that suggests a sense of purpose in Singularity, the company that produced How to Act Around Cops, of which he’s artistic director. If the Hollywoodish emptiness and familiarity of the work are bad marks against the enterprise, its effectiveness, simplicity, and economy of means are marks in favor. The aura is very much that of the old Off-Off era, especially at the Kraine, with its creaky up-and-then-down staircase entrance, its dingy aura and wobbly banks of seats. Skillfully built plays that rang hollow, like this one, weren’t uncommon sights in the old days, either. (And they were often knocked in The Village Voice, just as this one is, for their inner emptiness.)
The difference is that, back then, a wider range of artistic means and sensibilities was involved. There was less emphasis on the individual ‘property’ and the artists’ desire to parlay it into profit, balanced by a contrastingly greater sense of the writer and director as part of a school, an attitude, a process that was against the mainstream. The really annoying thing about How to Act Around Cops is that there isn’t anything in it, apart from its relatively unbuyable assumptions, so what’s the point of trudging up and then down the Kraine’s creaky stairs? If you could feel, as was easy in the ’60s and ’70s, that this play was part of a flood of plays in which artists were struggling to grasp a sense of the world and convey it to audiences, out of their own passion for life, it would seem more exciting. What’s scary is the sense that it lives in a world where it’s not the theatergoers, but the plays, that all carry a guilty secret around with them: They’re really somebody else’s old genre tropes, dressed up in new Downtown clothes, trying to parlay some new income out of the same old scams.