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COPS AND FRIENDS OF COPS, First Look Buffalo’s first production, has strong actors supporting an okay script

THE BASICS: COPS AND FRIENDS OF COPS, a play by Ron Klier presented by “the new kid in town,” First Look Buffalo, directed by Drew McCabe, starring Tony Grande, Dan Morris, John Patrick Patti, Shakora Purks, and Bob Rusch runs through February 1, Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m. in the newly re-named Compass Performing Arts Center, 545 Elmwood Avenue (800-838-3006). Runtime: 2 hours with one intermission

THUMBNAIL SKETCH: Every first Thursday of the month, Big Bill’s Basement Bar on North Street in St. Louis, MO, is off-limits to civilians, as it’s dedicated to “Cops and Friends of Cops.” To hear bartender Dom tell it, things tend to get a little rowdy on those nights, as the boys in blue like to let off steam surrounded only by their peers. A somewhat diffident stranger named Paul shows up, though, arousing the curiosity of everyone, but especially one physically imposing cop named Emmett. Two off-duty partners, Sal, who is white and about to retire, and Roosevelt, a young black cop, are less interested in Paul and more interested in debating whether Sal has been a racist or, as Sal might say, a realist. It turns out that there’s a lot more history to be revealed over the next two hours.

THE PLAYERS, THE PLAY, AND THE PRODUCTION: Despite an experienced cast, a great set, and a multiple-Artie Award-nominated director (THE PRIDE, HOUSE OF BLUE LEAVES, BREAST IN SHOW) whose most recent directing credit, SHE KILLS MONSTERS, was a breakout hit, this was a good, but not a great night at the theater. So, what was missing? Well, it might have been the director’s concept of the script, but, in the end, I think it was the script.

Not that playwright Ron Klier didn’t put a lot of thought into this one. He obviously did. And thinking back over the play for the past two days, I can almost see the playwright in front of the whiteboards you see in detective shows, thinking of all the connections between the five characters and just how to plant “the evidence” for the audience. I can also see this play being analyzed in a script-writing class, where theme by theme, trope by trope, it could be analyzed.

Bob Rusch, Tony Grande | Photo taken by Drew McCabe

For example, the overall framework for this is a good old Jacobean Revenge Tragedy (HAMLET anyone?) and the trope, if you’re interested, is called “Revenge Before Reason” which we don’t catch on to right away because the character we meet seems to be the “Ineffectual Lonertrope.

Along the way we get what director Spike Lee has named the “Magical Negro” trope where the black character imparts pearls of wisdom – life lessons learned from their culture (in this play it was in church) to help a suffering white person see his way out of a predicament.

And, towards the end, we get the sister of that trope, the one called “White Man’s Burden where a white man steps in and offers what appears to be a generous gift, although it’s often for a not-good reason, perhaps for the reason called “Mistaken For a Racist.”

But unlike students of tropes, detectives on a case, or playwrights pounding the keys of their laptops in Starbucks, we don’t have days or weeks to think about what’s happening. Plays happen in real-time. Here the real-time pacing and the reveals didn’t work for me.

Also, the script lacked something else.

Fairly early on my thought was that Ron Klier’s COPS is “Tarantino-lite” referring to multiple Oscar and Golden Globe-winning writer/director/producer Quentin Tarantino whose tough-guy movies starting with 1992’s “Reservoir Dogs” are so distinctive that, apparently, “Tarantinoesque” is now an official entry in the Oxford English Dictionary.

There are many aspects to Tarantino’s work, including potential or incipient violence during what appear to be day-to-day situations. That’s also a hallmark of the late, great Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Sam Shepard and also David Mamet and Klier came close to all of those but left something to be desired. With Tarantino or Shepard or Mamet you’re on edge from the very start. You suspect immediately that something’s up. And God knows in this play veteran actor Bob Rusch was doing everything possible to take us there.

Dan Morris, John Patrick Patti, Shakora Purks | Photo taken by Drew McCabe

But whether it’s Tarantino or Shepard or Mamet, the big reveals later in their works seem to flow more organically. Klier’s big reveals come across as too surprising.

And I wasn’t sure if Klier was going for Tarantino’s typical “absurdist” humor. That style has everyday people in everyday banal situations discussing some seemingly unrelated higher-level thought about culture or aesthetics, art or philosophy. Klier came close in the on-going bickering between the white and black partner cops.

But those conversations weren’t absurdist. They were actually pretty hard-hitting and, as the play unfolds and especially as it ends, there’s a lot more to be discussed than the two hours, five characters, and several situations allow.

And, as almost always on the very wide stage upstairs at 545 Elmwood, the acoustics stink and unless the actors really work to project their voices, and I mean really work it, even though the audience seating area is small and cleverly reconfigured for maximum focus and great sight-lines, it can be hard to hear all the dialogue. Each of the five actors in this production has a different background, but without a doubt, the two most experienced stage actors, Bob Rusch (as Emmet the suspicious cop) and Dan Morris (as the white partner), and even the fairly young Anthony J. Grande (the mysterious Paul) were the easiest to understand.

I fear that John Patrick Patti (Dom, the bartender) and Shakora Purks (Roosevelt, the black partner) have been spending too much time recently making movies and need to amp it up a bit for this quirky stage. Also, the music playing in the background, which is important, and referenced in the script, was occasionally too loud. It interfered with the actor’s voices. That’s an easy fix.

Speaking of the stage, though, once again we have a bar set!  Recycled, as far as I can tell, from the last play on this stage, the somewhat similar (small cast, intense situation) THE KINDNESS OF STRANGERS by Mark Humphries but the set here, credited to Bob Rusch and Lauren Woods, does have a first. I’m talking product placement, something usually associated with movies and television! Along with the many event posters and beverage company placards, there was signage behind the bar in the signature shape of a guitar pick for “Three Chord Bourbon,” a company with Buffalo connections which bought a quarter page ad in the program. And, when one of the characters calls for something stronger than beer, it’s bourbon, with the bartender told to “leave the bottle.” Was it a bottle of “Three Chord” left on the bar, label facing out? I’m not sure.

In case you’re curious, First Look Buffalo is a new, independent theatrical production company whose motto is ‘If it ain’t new to Buffalo, we don’t produce it.’

In case you’re curious, First Look Buffalo is a new, independent theatrical production company whose motto is ‘If it ain’t new to Buffalo, we don’t produce it.’

In case you’re curious, First Look Buffalo is a new, independent theatrical production company whose motto is “If it ain’t new to Buffalo, we don’t produce it.” Co-founded by two of the actors on stage, John Patrick Patti and Bob Rusch, they are currently renting the stage at the newly re-named Compass Performing Arts Center which also shows plays by the also-newly renamed Navigation Theatre Company.

This “tough-guy” play was a good first outing, and certainly put some gritty talent on stage. I’m looking forward to their next venture.

Lead image: Tony Grande, Dan Morris, John Patrick Patti, Shakora Purks, Bob Rusch | Photo taken by Drew McCabe

UP NEXT: For First Look Buffalo, we should be on the lookout for more new plays and also some readings of new plays. (Readings are where the actors sit or stand at music stands and read their lines, without costumes, props, or scenery, are an enjoyable way to experience new works, often for free or with a nominal donation. Definitely worth checking out.) A few months back, the Aurora Players put on just such a reading of James Marzo’s SOMETHING WICKED. And that brings us to this:

The Navigation Theatre Company, whose home is the Compass Performing Arts Center at 545 Elmwood, will present a fully staged (costumes, props, and scenery) version of James Marzo’s SOMETHING WICKED, on stage from April 16 to May 2, 2020. It’s a part of Buffalo’s history, based on the true story of the three Thayer Brothers who murdered James Love and were publicly hanged before a crowd of over 20,000 in Buffalo’s Niagara Square in June of 1825 (the year of the opening of the Erie Canal).

*HERD OF BUFFALO (Notes on the Rating System)

ONE BUFFALO: This means trouble. A dreadful play, a highly flawed production, or both. Unless there is some really compelling reason for you to attend (i.e. you are the parent of someone who is in it), give this show a wide berth.

TWO BUFFALOS: Passable, but no great shakes. Either the production is pretty far off base, or the play itself is problematic. Unless you are the sort of person who’s happy just going to the theater, you might look around for something else.

THREE BUFFALOS: I still have my issues, but this is a pretty darn good night at the theater. If you don’t go in with huge expectations, you will probably be pleased.

FOUR BUFFALOS: Both the production and the play are of high caliber. If the genre/content are up your alley, I would make a real effort to attend.

FIVE BUFFALOS: Truly superb–a rare rating. Comedies that leave you weak with laughter, dramas that really touch the heart. Provided that this is the kind of show you like, you’d be a fool to miss it!

Written by Peter Hall

Peter Hall

Peter Hall continues trying to figure out how "it" all works. For over 20 years, as a producer and program host on WNED Classical (94.5 FM), he's conducted over 1,000 interviews with artists as he asks them to explain, in layman's terms, "what's the big picture here?" These days Peter can be heard regularly on Sunday afternoons from 1 to 5.

On “Theater Talk” (heard Friday mornings at 6:45 and 8:45 a.m. on WBFO 88.7 FM) his favorite question of co-host Anthony Chase is simply "What's goin' on?" As mentioned recently in Buffalo Spree magazine, Peter's "Buffalo Rising reviews are the no-holds barred 'everyman's' take."

A member of Buffalo's Artie Awards Committee, Peter holds a B.A. in Comparative Literature from Columbia University and an M.B.A. from SUNY at Buffalo. For over twenty-five years he was an adjunct professor for Canisius College’s Richard J. Wehle School of Business.

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