"The Rant' at InterAct Theatre (1st review)

Truth as the ultimate victim

Billingslea and Araoz: How would real people handle this? (Photo: Seth Rozin.)
Billingslea and Araoz: How would real people handle this? (Photo: Seth Rozin.)

After police shoot and kill an unarmed black teenager, his mother seeks retribution, a city investigator seeks the truth, a tabloid journalist seeks a story, and the cop (who's also black) seeks empathy. The Rant, Andrew Case's urban tragedy, grabs us by the throat from the outset with the bereaved mother's diatribe against police and the system, powerfully delivered by Kimberly Fairbanks. Then it shifts gears to demonstrate that each of the four characters holds a bias (and a rant) that impedes the search for truth.

This is a first-rate production of an engrossing drama that never flags for 90 minutes, well acted, with especially compelling performances by the two black actors, Fairbanks and Aldo Billingslea. Unlike many InterAct Theatre productions, which often wind up exhorting the audience to march to the barricades and overthrow the system, The Rant acknowledges above all the ambiguities of human events and the difficulty of ascertaining truth in any given situation. It's provocative and forceful theater about real people in everyday situations. Even the rotating scenic design (by Marka Suber) reflects more than ordinary care and expense.

What then, is my complaint about The Rant? Just this: It purports to offer a sophisticated portrayal of how the truth-and-justice system works in the big city, but it fails to deliver. As a journalist who has been pounding typewriters and urban pavements for 40-plus years, I found all four characters too naÓ¯ve or too cynical, or both.

More questions than answers

In The Rant, the black mother Denise sets the tragedy in motion by phoning the cops (even though she says she detests them) during a domestic spat. After they kill her son, she bitter;y denounces the police in a confidential statement taped by Lila, a city investigator (Elena Araoz). Lila is so outraged by what she hears— and so cynical about the prospects for justice— that she leaks the tape to Alexander, who writes for the New York Post (David Ingram). Alexander conducts his own investigation and concludes that Denise has told less than the whole truth, and he publishes his conclusions. In the process he inadvertently blows Lila's cover, thus jeopardizing her case, her job and maybe even her life (she gets death threats from Internet bloggers, one of whom may be the cop who is the target of her inquiry).

This scenario raised several questions in my mind. Why does Denise give a statement to Lila but clam up with reporters? (Most people with grievances I know are desperate for the media to listen to them; the former Philadelphia Daily News reporter Chuck Stone was said to have brought in more killers than any cop.) Why is Lila so distressed about anonymous death threats on the Internet? Doesn't she know such threats come with her job? (As Alexander tells her, "Welcome to public life.") When Alexander betrays Lila's confidence, why does Lila turn to him for damage control? Has she no mentors or colleagues in her own office who've been through this same situation many times before? Why do Lila and Denise alike perceive Alexander, the tabloid journalist, as their only hope in this situation? Are there no other journalists or bloggers who'd be overjoyed to jump on this story?

My real-life characters

Most experienced cops, investigators, journalists and even ghetto mothers develop built-in bullshit detectors and street smarts, but Case's characters are repeatedly shocked— shocked!— to discover that some people lie, and that things aren't always what they seem. My real-life characters also develop networks of trust and methods of inspiring confidence that encourage their sources to open up to them. They also develop support systems to fall back on when things go awry— subjects on which Case's characters seem clueless.

The most credible of the four characters, to my mind, is the cop Charles Simmons (played with remarkable emotional range by Billingslea), who must wrestle with his conflicting loyalties to the black community and his fellow cops, both of whom distrust him. Yet ultimately his situation didn't quite ring true for me, either.

Domestic abuse calls like the one in this play constitute America's biggest source of violence and the primary activity of many beat cops. Often the appearance of a grim-faced cop at the door exacerbates a situation that might otherwise have been resolved peacefully. Experienced cops understand this and develop alternative coping mechanisms.

The tale of the ventriloquist cop

In the mid '90s, for example, a San Francisco patrolman who was an amateur ventriloquist fashioned a dummy in a policeman's uniform, which he took with him on domestic calls. When feuding couples answered the door, they were greeted not by a macho storm trooper hung up on his authority but by a chattering dummy whose friendly patter often caused hot tempers to dissolve into laughter.

Was the ventriloquist cop rewarded for his ingenuity? Not at all. On he contrary, his superiors threatened him with suspension for engaging in behavior "incompatible with a paramilitary organization" (the department's words, not mine).

Now, there is an urban problem that InterAct could sink its teeth into, and maybe even have a little fun with.

To read another review by Jim Rutter, click here.

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