A man walks into a bar and all hell breaks loose in Ron Klier’s edge-of-your-seat World Premiere suspense thriller Cops And Friends Of Cops, the latest offering from VS. Theatre Company and one that suits their spiffy new Mid-City space to a T.
The man in question is scruffily-dressed, thickly-bearded Paul (VS. Artistic Director Johnny Clark), quickly warned by aging hippie bartender Dom (Paul Vincent O’Connor) that tonight is no night for someone who’s neither cop nor friend of cop to call this watering hole-in-the-wall his home, and as we will soon learn, Paul is neither the former nor the latter. No indeed, he is definitely not the latter.
Paul’s calm but determined refusal to vacate the premises suggests that he has more on his mind than a simple bottle of Bud, a suspicion that will be borne out once the police officers begin to arrive. As for what Paul has planned, you won’t hear it from me, and woe be anyone tempted to reveal the many shocks and surprises playwright Klier has in store.
I will at the very least introduce Cops And Friends Of Cops’ remaining trio of characters—Emmett (Andrew Hawkes), a confrontational tough-guy cop whose insistence upon paying for Paul’s second beer seems the farthest thing from friendly, and patrol car partners Sal (Gareth Williams) and Roosevelt (Rolando Boyce), the former approaching retirement age after forty years on the force, the latter just itching for his three-year partner to turn in his badge if only to no longer be forced to grin and bear the endless stream of purportedly “friendly” racist jokes that spew forth from Sal’s mouth at African-American Roosevelt’s expense.
An air of menace hangs over Dom’s bar pretty much from the get-go despite the considerable number of laughs that playwright Klier keeps coming fast and furious throughout the play’s first half-hour or so, that is until the bearded stranger reveals just why he’s there on cops-and-friends-of-cop night, after which bullets seem more likely to fly than jokes.
It’s been over two years now since VS. last treated us to an evening of L.A. theater at its edgiest, all the more reason to welcome Clark and company back, particularly since the 39-seat intimacy of the newly-renamed and niftily-refurbished former Black Dahlia Theatre maximizes every suspenseful moment of Klier’s play by keeping Cops And Friends Of Cops smack-dab in the audience’s faces from its deceptively quiet start to its high-power finish.
Mere inches separate anyone seated in the front row from Dom’s dive bar, surely one of production designer Danny Cistone’s most stellar creations, particularly as lit to maximum dramatic effectiveness by Derrick McDaniel. (Is there anything in Cistone’s set that doesn’t look like it was transferred lock, stock, and beer bottle from the nearest downscale neighborhood watering hole?) Gareth Khalioun’s pitch-perfect costumes are each and every one character-revelatory, from Dom’s tie-dyed t-shirt to Paul’s sloppily thrown together outfit that seems unlikely to have left his back for a week at the very least. And any play that features both a “violence designer” (Ned Mochel at his fiercest) and a “makeup and special effects artist” (Justine Vickery at her bloodiest) promises more than its share of brutality, police and otherwise.
Most importantly, director Klier keeps the tension at peak level, whether upping the realism and suspense with his electric sound design, or insisting on deliberately pregnant pauses which his superb cast deliver with razor-sharp accuracy.
Clark has never been better than he is as a man driven nearly mad with … (You’ll have to fill in the blank, as for me to do so would be a crime.) Hawkes, Boyce, Williams are so absolutely believable as cops that you might be tempted to stick around afterwards for proof that they aren’t the real thing. And Williams ties the whole shebang together with his spot-on turn as seen-it-all Dom. And most of these guys are getting the onstage workout of a lifetime.
Cops And Friends Of Cops is produced by Andrew Carlberg and Clark. Tommy Dunn is production stage manager, Mercedes Manning associate producer, and Stephen Sullivan house manager.
Cops And Friends Of Cops gives theater lovers ample reason to celebrate VS. Theatre Company’s return to our L.A. stage scene in its brand-new digs. Not only is it a pleasure to welcome Clark and company back, to do so with as exciting a production as Cops And Friends Of Cops is exhilarating news indeed.
VS. Theatre Company, 5453 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles.
May 9, 2013
Photos: Kate Compton