Monday, August 4, 2008

Play Review: Detective Story

By Sidney Kingsley

I must confess—and this is not an apology—that I am an enormous fan of Law & Order. Law & Order “old school” I suppose you’d have to say, as I prefer the vintage that featured Michael Moriarty (Sam who?). And I refuse to acknowledge the headliners reenacting the headlines today, ever since Fred Thompson decided to resign from a show about reality in favor of doing a reality show and ultimately waste everyone’s time.

Dick Wolf has never seen me, and none of his underlings have ever cast me on the program—if Mr. Moriarty shall never return, what chance do I have? So I’ve spent more nights than not (and a few afternoons, and even, thanks to A&E, USA, and TNT, entire weekends) mulling over L&O reruns and musing over Jerry Orbach’s quips, Chris Noth’s haymakers, Moriarty’s moralizing, and marvelling that Sam Waterston actually looked almost young once upon a time. And I’m glad a cousin of mine finally accepted the fact that he is a dead ringer for Jesse L. Martin, except for the fact that my cousin is a white guy living in Georgia.

And to think without Sidney Kingsley’s 1949 play Detective Story, I might have spent the last twenty years soaking up some vitamin K in the sunny outdoors instead of spending it in the exercise of running to fat.

Well, who am I kidding? I’d still be husky and pale.

To read Detective Story now, one is most reminded of the classic Dragnet, the other favorite crime drama of mine, but for completely different reasons. Like Jack Webb, Kinglsey’s cops of the 21st squad in New York City live in a very anachronistic world—one in which phrases like “hand job” and “kinky” have a complete, total, and utterly different meaning than they must have had in 1949. Like both shows, the play is a more or less ensemble drama, and showcases incidental and quirky characters who make one-off appearances. If you need proof of this, consult the breakdown offered by Dramatists Play Service, which lists 24 male characters, 8 females, and several extras. Then reflect that in 1949 a staright play with that cast size, and a new one at that, managed to get produced on Broadway.

The main character is Jim McLeod, the original hard-boiled detective who plays by his own rules. Disgusted by the criminal element, merciless in his approach, and contemptuous of anyone who takes a softer touch (and always of his superiors), I wonder if anyone would ever have had the idea for Dirty Harry, Lethal Weapon, or any of the other cookie-cutter hardnoses handed down by Hollywood without him. McLeod gives his imitators tenure when his boss Lt Monaghan tells him “I don’t like you any more’n you like me,” and then follows it up with the absurd and vague rationalization, “but you got a value here and I need you on my squad. That’s the only reason you’re not wearing a white badge again.” Italics oh so deliciously mine.

But unlike his decscendants,. McLeod is so absolutist we know the score and can see the setup for his downfall coming before the end of his first scene. And it is a scene which introduces a very edgy subject for 1949, that of abortion. Apparently the termination of a pregnancy was illegal in New York state back then, and McLeod spends the play both roughing up and getting the goods on a repeat offender, and tryng to get each to stick. But when he learns, through a very elaborate and not altogether plausibe ruse orchestrated by Monaghan, that the abortionist’s hands have operated a little too close to home, McLeod’s life spirals into a very quick and crumbling tragedy that would have unnerved the Greeks.

The plot is clunky, and its ingredients have not been well blended. Mcleod’s wife Mary could only have been named for the mother of Christ given how her goodness and purity are touted throughout the play. She finally makes an appearance on page 57. In short order weare asked to believe that the saintly Mary McLeod had a former life frequented by various underworld figures, including a vile gangster boyfriend who once knocked her up. We are further instructed that his happened about two years before she met her policeman husband and he has never known about it. Confronted with the fact hat his golden bride had once given herself to the type of man McLeod washes his hands after merely looking at—and used the services of the abortionist he’s trying to put away to boot—their marriage breaks up and Mcleod is shot dead in the station.

If I have broken a critic’s code by spoiling the plot, know that the plot cannot be any more spoiled than it already is. The pleasure of reading Detective Story, aside from its typeset noir world inside a black and white big city, is Kingsley’s craftsmanship I go on and on about.

More than thirty characters populate this two act drama, phones ring constantly and the set is a station house with multiple office spaces that carry on simultaneous scenes and sub-plots (including an eventually effective one about a young war hero who embezzled for love). A full production woud confuse the eye if Kingsley hadn’t made sense of it all for us. And if McLeod and Mary seem a bit cut and dry, perhaps it is because the playwright has used most of his talents giving us a rich array of characters in those smaller, incidental parts. Sims, the attorney for the abortionist, is the highlight of his pages, and the female shoplifter who is being booked at the top of the ply is the very fingerprint of humanity. Her tactical and aching telephone call to her brother-in-law is funny and sad at once, and in her we recognize every stupid mistake we’ve ever made, and the times we got caught doing it.

Detective Story sets its own terms in the sense that it can only exist in the world Sidney Kingsley has given us, a world that existed more in the imagination than in reality anyway. Unless John McCain somehow wins, steals, or inherits the Presidency, or if Barack Obama pays off his debt to the devil by appointing the 700 Club to the Supreme Court, abortion will remain legal in New York. So any revival would require the play to retain its 1949 setting, unless it were adapted/rewritten significantly. And the admirable frankness of the script in terms of topic, tone, and language would seem so light and cipherous if regurgitated by a modern writer to whom vernacular were cliché.

Besides, anyone who’d dare to try whould have to answer to McLeod.