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‘Crime and Punishment in America’ at The American Century Theater

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Billed as Crime and Punishment in America at The American Century Theater, this pairing of one-act plays (Cops and Hello Out There) are must-sees for several reasons.

First, they are well-written, gritty crime dramas that are well directed and well-acted.

 Ajueyitsi (The Young Gambler) and Rachel Caywood (The Girl). Photo by Johannes Markus.

Ajueyitsi (The Young Gambler) and Rachel Caywood (The Girl). Photo by Johannes Markus.

Second, the subject matter is extremely topical with the events of Ferguson, Missouri, and other controversial police actions in the news locally, nationally and internationally.

Third, The American Century Theater (TACT) is shuttering operations this year after 20 years of producing significant 20th-century American plays and musicals.

Another reason to go to this performance is that Montgomery County Police Chief J. Thomas Manger will give a post-show discussions following the matinee on January 18.

In a candid “talk-back” with Marshall and the audience after Saturday’s show, Manger said  “Theater is supposed to make you think and feel. It pains me as a police officer, but as an audience member it was a great show.” He discussed body and car cameras, hiring the right people for the job, firing police who lie, (he has had to do it almost 50 times, he said), the racial mix of a police department, police accountability, scenario-based training and the use of deadly force.

“There are different thresholds for the use of deadly force,” said Manger. We shouldn’t be shooting that quickly, but there are times like we just saw here [in Cops], where it can happen in an instant.”

Manger is best known for his key role in apprehending the DC snipers. He was Fairfax County Chief of Police for six years and is now Chief of Police in Montgomery County, a post he has held for 11 years. He has done some acting himself with TACT and used to sing baritone in the popular barbershop quartet The Plaids.

The best reason to see these two plays is the acting, the writing, and the thought-provoking artistic decisions that Marshall and Directors Stephen Jarrett (Cops) and Ellen Dempsey (Hello Out There) made. Neither script calls for the perpetrators to be African-American, but the team decided to cast African Americans in the roles. Having staged it before in 2007, Marshall decided to reprise Cops by Terry Curtis Fox right after the events in Ferguson. Hello Out There by Armenian-American playwright William Saroyan is also an encore performance for TACT.

The lights come up on a stark prison cell with a single occupant who calls “Hello out there,” several times. He is answered by the jailhouse cook and chore-maid (Rachel Caywood) and they exchange stories and develop a bond in beautifully written and performed dialog.

The prisoner is played by a remarkable Bru Ajueyitsi, continually rubs the bowl of a spoon with his thumb. Ajueyitsi appears dreamy and idealistic despite being jailed in Matador, Texas, for alleged rape. It is a powerful, nuanced performance. Caywood is good at portraying a tentative and impressionable small-town girl. The cast is rounded out by Ric Andersen, who plays a simmering hothead as The Husband, Madelyn Farris as The Wife and Bruce Alan Rauscher as Another Man.

Chaz D. Pando’s performance in Cops is riveting. Originally conceived by famous Chicago playwright David Mamet, he walks into a diner and goes straight to the bathroom, only to come out and get caught in the middle of a misunderstanding that results in a hostage situation. He is behind the bar in the diner and much of his dialogue is shouted. The anguish in Pando’s voice is palpable. He shouts and sputters and screams and cries as he argues, makes demands and negotiates with the cops. It is a really impressive performance.

The hostage is Nello DeBlasio (no relation to the New York mayor who recently had thousands of police turn their backs on him at a police funeral for perceived lack of support), who plays diner owner George. He is really well cast and his facial expressions effectively reflect the horror of the situation as it unfolds.

Another actor who has that rare skill of not appearing to be an actor at all – but is unquestionably in character the whole time – is Dan Alexander as Gene Czerwicki, the third policeman, who tells stories as he chain smokes Marlboros, the smell of which filters out over the audience.

The first two policemen carry the show. Played by Rauscher as Jack Rolf and Anthony van Eyck as Bob Barbersoin, they pull practical jokes and talk shop, denigrating women and minorities and engaging in racial profiling as Mickey the waitress (Ann De Michele) and George go about their diner duties without appearing to take offense. Rob Heckart and Eileen Farrell round out the cast as the Cabdriver/voice of Lieutenant Buchevski and an Omelette Eater.

Kudos to Set Designer Trena M. Weiss and Props Master Kevin Laughon. There was not an anachronism in sight in the detailed diner, which even included grease going up the aluminum splash-plate above the grill. And to Sound Designer Ed Moser for the lush rainy and siren-pierced soundscape.

(l to r) Anthony van Eyck (Bob Barberson), Dan Alexander (Gene Czerwicki), and Bruce Alan Rauscher (Jack Rolf). Photo by Johannes Markus.

(l to r) Anthony van Eyck (Bob Barberson), Dan Alexander (Gene Czerwicki), and Bruce Alan Rauscher (Jack Rolf). Photo by Johannes Markus.

This pair of thought-provoking one-acts is a must-see, but even more than that, it is a must-feel. Humanity is facing some seriously deep issues and theater as presented by TACT is a good prism to help us to understand what is going on.

Running time: Two hours with a 15 minute intermission.

Crime and Punishment in America plays through January 31, 2015 at Gunston Arts Center Theater Two – 2700 South Lang Street – in Arlington, VA. For tickets, call the box office at (703) 998-4555, or purchase them online.

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