It's a moment we repeatedly see in the would-be graphic novels of cartoonists like Chris Ware. After pages during which a troubled central character achieves complete emotional stasis (usually through panels depicting little more than the passing of time), a phone rings, or someone knocks at the door. Whether this development is good, bad or just plain weird doesn't matter: One or more panels are then devoted to the character's total lack of response.
Call it a reaction shot, without the reaction. In sequences where the pauses aren't pregnant, but stillborn, the character's extremely limited emotional bandwidth remains unchanged. Manbites Dog Theater's production of Buddy Cop 2 shows us how that aesthetic works out on stage, and the results can't be called encouraging.
Playwrights Hannah Bos and Paul Thureen set their script in a police station in the provincial town of Shandon, Ind. But under the direction of returning guest Kevin Ewert, this production situates itself instead somewhere between the Fargo of the Coen Brothers and Reno 911. Critical responses to the original New York production praised its wistfulness and the subtle treatment of its characters' small-town foibles. By contrast, this version can't seem to stop gawking at them. Nowhere is this more evident—or ultimately more trying—than in the endless attempts by junior cop Terry (Lucius Robinson) to draw out the past of Darlene (Dana Marks), a new recruit who's recently moved to town.
Under Ewert's direction, Robinson's Terry is a smirky, one-note horndog always eager for scraps, who repeatedly tries to push Darlene's buttons in their conversations. At first, her lengthy silence conveys the total awkwardness of the moment. But, as in the work of such comic writers as Ware, the more that quiet is reiterated between these and other characters, the deader it becomes. Veteran actor Jay O'Berski has similarly been directed to assume an emotional monotone, in this case as the always-peeved senior officer, Don.
Given what we see, it would be tempting to dismiss Buddy Cop 2 as yet another broad parochial satire. But playwrights Bos and Thureen actually want us to figure out two or three small-town mysteries in this work. The problem: When this production keeps underscoring the laughable lack of sophistication of almost every character on stage, it encourages us not to care enough about them to try. As a result, the last iteration of the emotional emptiness referenced above takes place in the worst possible place: in the audience, at the end of the show. It's a twist ending—but one that other companies might not want to repeat.