Newyorkland Kicks in Doors of Cops’ Hearts at On the Boards
You’re listening to the Beastie Boys sing-scream “Sabotage” before Newyorkland begins at the On the Boards (tonight and Sunday night; tickets: $25), and you’re inspecting Kenneth Collins’s hectic set, part bunker, part safety-window and microphone, part blank screen onto which projections will appear. On your left, two cops, arms folded, watch the crowd from the shadows of the stage. On your right, another two, surveying, seemingly in casual conversation, but always with an eye out.
There’s an ancient wall-mounted rotary phone, a tiny portable TV, a manual typewriter. Masses of power cords of varying colors coil haphazardly in front of the cops’ box, as if its electrical guts have spilled out. All the bare bulbs have those protective baskets around them.
This is particularly delicate time to attempt this act of empathy, with police abusing the use the pepper spray across the country, but Newyorkland is not an apologia–it suggests only that cops are not born authoritarian goons, which depending on who you are may be a high or low bar. What is remarkable about the performance is its amplification of your senses, so that you begin a sensory immersion into Newyorkland, not a rationalized one. (John Sully’s music and soundscape is integral to the piece.)
From the moment the miked typewriter clacks at you out of the darkness, officers taking calls alternately horrific and trivial with the same detached dispatch, office scenes–memories, dreams, reflections, shot by William Cusick, riffs on classic ’70s police dramas and Steadicam documentaries–playing out on the wall, you enter a grubby hologram of police work, where it is never entirely clear what is what. A target range figure of a man with a gun keeps intruding into your consciousness at odd moments.
At issue is a bait-and-switch: Temporary Distortion’s creative team interviewed police they knew, researched reams of interviews and case files, and collated the mass into spoken-word collage: Cops (performed by Nick Bixby, Daniel Brown, Al Di Martino, Brian Greer) talk about how they came to join the force, drawn by the status, the pension–but often as well because of the urge to protect people.
Yet, the cops say, there’s a profound disillusionment when you discover that your primary task is to regulate the behavior of people who see themselves as free citizens. It’s human nature, as one says, to “bridle” at someone telling you what to do. Newyorkland explores that role, of glorified hall monitor, dealing with raging cases of oppositional defiance disorder, and the square-peggishness of sending armed people out to defuse arguments.
The work is an “assemblage,” say its creators, and it’s worth noting that so is cop life. In contrast to the tidy narrative arcs of TV police procedurals, here the mundane paperwork, dreamworld nightshifts, batshit crazy felons, and domestic stress collide in no particular order, sound and fury signifying nothing in particular–the cops join in a searing “walking wounded” fugue: people are scum, animals, filth, that’s the job, do the job, don’t let the job do you, keep your head on a swivel, etc.
“New York City officers kill themselves at a rate of 29 per 100,000 a year,” about twice the rate of the general population. That’s the kind of didacticism that’s not present in this work, though there is a monologue from a profoundly disturbed officer, and a memorial ritual, to the words of “Taps.” You know the work must be drawing to a close, but you don’t want it to, to have this strange window slide shut.