Marion Isaac McClinton's "Police Boys" is like an episode of "Hill Street Blues" set in hell. ("Hell Street Blues," if you will).
The play, making its world premiere as part of Center Stage's re:Discovery series, takes place during a state of emergency in an unnamed inner city. A gang, the Police Boys, has declared open season on the cops, and before it's over this urban Armageddon produces more dead and wounded than a Greek tragedy.
As directed by the playwright and performed at a fever pitch, this is undeniably powerful material. But there is too much of it. McClinton seems to be a proponent of the David Mamet style of heightened speech. The levels of profanity and violence are both exaggerated for dramatic effect. Unprintable epithets spew forth with the same rapidity as the onstage gunfire.
However, there is a thin line separating heightened from overwrought, and "Police Boys" crosses it -- in terms of language and action. Intermingled with the gut-wrenching realistic scenes in the police precinct are surrealistic re-enactments of the crime at the core of the plot.
A 14-year-old would-be gang member who calls himself the Royal Boy -- viscerally portrayed by Bobby Bermea -- has been arrested for rape and murder. The re-enactments primarily take the form of visions that come to a police sergeant nicknamed "Comanche," a practitioner of voodoo played by David Alan Anderson as a man wavering dangerously between confused and lost. The play begins with Comanche's chanting, dabbing his chest with blood and communicating with the voice of a disembodied spirit. This summons forth a vision of the Royal Boy as a rap singer.
The surrealistic elements add theatricality, but they also contribute to the play's blurred focus. So many threads are woven into the plot, they get tangled and obscure the larger issues. And the larger issues are worth pursuing. Chief among them is the need for a sense of community -- a need to belong -- and the scary realization that this need can be met by the police or by gangs. It's no coincidence that the title stresses the similarity between the two.
McClinton stages so much internal warfare between the cops that at times it's difficult to believe there's more violence on the streets. (As proof of the physicality of the production, two actors at Tuesday's performance had their hands bandaged from accidents during rehearsals and previews.) The playwright's point isn't that, like Greek tragedy, a fatal ending is inevitable. Instead, by showing how our society uses violence to combat violence, he is suggesting we look for a solution outside this cycle -- before it begins.
Each character presents a different approach to the problem, and all are reinforced by strong performances, particularly those of Faye M. Price, the play's only policewoman; Terry E. Bellamy as an ambitious former internal affairs stoolie; and Liann Pattison as a hard-as-nails assistant district attorney.
McClinton has been rewriting "Police Boys" throughout rehearsals and previews, and there's more work to be done. The play offers a lot to take with you; you just have to sift through too much to find it.
"Police Boys" continues at Center Stage through April 17. Call (410) 332-0033.