"SplitSecond" is apt to provoke some heated discussions. It is, I should also point out, a verbose and somewhat ill-structured play, and you'll have to plow through a repetitive first act before you get to the crux of things.
But if you stick with Dennis McIntyre's drama, by the end you'll find yourself on the horns of a particularly troubling dilemma. Just like Val Johnson, the black policeman who has been wrestling with himself all evening long and finally must come to grips with his conscience.
Indeed, "Split Second," which opened Sunday night at the Studio Theatre, is the sort of play that Arthur Miller might have written, had he chosen to focus on struggling black lawmen instead of, say, the immigrant longshoremen of "A View From the Bridge." It is concerned with family loyalties, morality and the consequences of an inflammatory act performed in the fury of the moment. And the resolution puts nothing to rest.
Johnson (Michael W. Howell) is a second-generation cop, a Vietnam vet and, by most accounts, a decent guy. As the play begins, one steamy July 4th night in New York City, he has just chased down a car thief, handcuffed him and radioed for help. The thief (Tomas Kearney) is all scum -- one of those two-bit recidivists who are as much a part of urban life as graffiti. He tries to weasel out of the crime. Then he floats a bribe. When that fails, he turns vicious, showering the policeman with a torrent of racial abuse.
Johnson snaps, whips out his gun and shoots the thief point-blank through the heart. There is one more complicating factor: The corpse is white.
In a panic, Johnson removes the handcuffs and plants a knife on the body, so it will look as if he fired in self-defense. Initially, that is the story he will tell the investigating officer. And that is more or less the story he will also tell his wife (Lynda Grava'tt), his father (Vantile E. Whitfield) and a fellow cop (Valdred Doug Brown).
He has a harder time convincing himself. Once the play gets past the violence of the first scene, it becomes a one-man tug of war. The other characters will pressure Johnson this way and that, especially as the actual circumstances begin to come to light. But the suspense hangs on Johnson's decision: Will he own up to the truth and see his life fall apart? Or stand by a lie in the name of survival? No one doubts the world is better off without the sniveling thief, but is that justification for the cover-up?
McIntyre clearly intends his drama to be more than the tribulations of a policeman who momentarily lost control. What he is really putting on trial is the racism he finds rampant in American society. "Stay alive," urges Johnson's wife, desperately. "That's our responsibility."
To her falls the play's most feverish arguments: Johnson may have acted in a split second, but decades of accumulated abuse and insult, of broken promises and second-class citizenship, forced him to do so. His father, a retired cop, went along with the system, suffered the denigrations and came to his own terms with racism. But by pulling the trigger, she argues, her husband "had the power to turn it off for one minute." It was his duty.
You may buy her reasoning; you may not. But it adds considerable fuel to a fire that up to then has been burning only fitfully. I won't tell how Johnson pleads in the end. But his final speech does nothing to bury the questions that McIntyre has raised over the evening.
Given the recent resurgence of police killings in our communities, there's no denying the pertinency of "Split Second." From a dramatic standpoint, however, it rarely erupts with the spontaneity of life. The characters represent points of view (or in Johnson's case, conflicting points of view); beyond that, they can't lay claim to much flesh and blood.
The play is made up almost entirely of two-character scenes, which register as successive rounds in a debate. You're always aware that McIntyre is manipulating events and making these people say what they say. The drama ends one way, but I wasn't entirely persuaded that the author couldn't have tilted it the other way just as easily. Inevitability is not one of its virtues.
The evening, directed by Samuel P. Barton, starts explosively. Kearney's thief is as vile as he is jittery -- a hopped-up piece of human detritus. ("Do I look like crime pays?" he observes, sardonically.) After he meets his doom, however, the production loses a lot of its visceral impact and settles into the stolid gravity of a latter-day Greek tragedy. The set -- a few pieces of wooden furniture, backed by a chain-link fence -- makes no pretense to realism. The actors, held to a minimum of movement, seem to be figures in a contemporary frieze.
Howell has a rich, resonant voice and highly expressive eyes. You know he's in torment as Johnson, but once you've seen about 20 minutes of the performance, you've seen it all. A furrowed brow says only so much. Whitfield doesn't bring alive the role of Johnson's gray-haired father, so the play's points about the gaps between one generation and the next tend to register as academic.
Grava'tt, however, draws on some deep wellsprings of emotion as the wife who sees her world crumbling for a principle she can't fathom. Brown is competent as Johnson's friend, who has wrestled with similar problems and been able to put them out of his mind. And Joseph Pinckney suggests, in his brief appearances, that the investigating officer is slyer than he pretends.
But I can't say that "Split Second" lives up to the dramatic immediacy of its title. The controversy begins after the curtain falls.
Split Second, by Dennis McIntyre. Directed by Samuel P. Barton. Set, Michael Layton; costumes, Jane Schloss Phelan; lighting, Daniel MacLean Wagner. With Michael W. Howell, Tomas Kearney, Joseph Pinckney, Valdred Doug Brown, Lynda Grava'tt, Vantile E. Whitfield. At the Studio Theatre, in repertory with "The Colored Museum," through Feb. 21.