Theater Americana: Radiohole’s “Whatever, Heaven Allows” & The Debate Society’s “Buddy Cop 2”

The Debate Society's "Buddy Cop 2." Photo by Ian Savage.

The Debate Society, Buddy Cop 2 (PS 122’s COIL offsite). The Debate Society is one of the companies I’ve been hearing about since I moved to New York, and I was excited to have a chance to see Buddy Cop 2–which I missed during its initial run at the Incubator–re-staged as part of PS 122’s COIL Festival.

This show made a number of critics’ best-of-2010 lists, so it feels kind of redundant to go through the entire description–I’ll try to keep it brief. The play is an amalgam of several different pop cultural tropes: the buddy cop movie, the bittersweet comedies of the 1980s, the Christmas movie, and finally the media-saturated community-dealing-with-a-tragedy story.

Set in small-town Shandon, Indiana, Buddy Cop 2 takes place in the early Eighties. The main character, who provides the voice-overs that open and close the play, is Darlene Novak (Hannah Bos), a recent divorcee who’s taken a small town police job to start her life over. Her two colleagues are the slightly awkward Terry (Paul Thureen), who’s nursing a crush on her, and Don (Michael Cyril Creighton), the overly intense cop who’s nominally in charge while the chief is on his summer vacation.

Throughout the show, nothing really happens to the three main characters, who mostly play racquetball (the police station is temporarily housed in the community center due to flood damage), josh one another, and accept Christmas gifts of baked cookies that come in from citizens every so often. The tragedy of the show unfolds essentially as a back story: Skyler (Monique Vukovic) is a local child tragically dying of cancer. In an effort to express their support, the entire community has decided to celebrate Christmas in August, since Skyler loves Christmas. Her story captures the hearts of America,with the governor flying in so his daughter can perform a rollerskating tribute, and generally inviting all the self-absorbed media pageantry amid the town’s best intentions. But all this is in the background as Terry flirts awkwardly with Darlene, Don grouses about being shut out of the governor’s security detail (the highest profile task to fall to them in ages), and they try to figure out what to do with all the cookies that keep rolling in.

But that’s the trick to TDS’s production, which is cleverly and understatedly brilliant: much like Laura Jellinek’s stunningly detailed set (with the incredibly rendered police office downstage and the racquetball court upstage, separately by a hallway that doubles as the playing space for off-set action), Buddy Cop 2 makes its point through the accumulation of detail. What emerges during the roughly 90-minute show is a tenderly rendered portrait of deeply human and humane people. And the ending, which in less adept hands could have been shockingly over-the-top, instead plays as a touching moment of decent people being decent.

Radiohole, Whatever, Heaven Allows (PS 122’s COIL offsite). My first exposure to Radiohole was a couple years ago when they were touring Fluke, and I fell in love in immediately. Words like “smart,” “irreverent,” and “brilliant” are thrown around so much that they’re basically meaningless, but experiencing a Radiohole show is a true eye-opener: if The Debate Society are stylists, Radiohole are anarchists. If TDS is playing with pastiche, Radiohole is bricolage, their chaotic shows expressions of T.S. Eliot’s prophetic fragments, shoring up the ruins of the postmodern, late-capitalist American psyche. They’re not plays, they’re experiences, delivered with punk rock intensity and, for all their avant-garde pedigree, nary a hint of pretension.

If I could find a fault with Whatever, Heaven Allows, it’s that it struck me as almost too accessible compared to Fluke. In the beginning, Eric Dyer’s opening monologue (which changes over time, I guess: I heard that the obligatory “fire exit” notices were worked in at PS 122, as part of an apocalyptic narrative) recounts him seeing an ad on television with people falling (up, if I recall correctly), which caused him to fall down, literally off the couch in a weird moment of ecstasy (or, given Dyer’s personality, possible hysterical laughter). The word “fall” takes on a double-meaning through Milton’s Paradise Lost, humanity’s fall from Grace intersecting through linguistic play with Dyer’s own, and his love for a certain “Young Jean” in the room with him…love and falling, life and the Bible, all twisted into one through a clever bit of wordplay.

What follows from there is a mishmash of Milton and Douglas Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows, and through all the chaos onstage–the mix of video, abstract stage elements, and, yes, booziness–emerges a series of provocative questions about love, the price we pay for it, and ultimately about the body itself. Loss of social status may seem an unequal match to the loss of Grace, but if knowledge and the experience of love are the price to be paid in either case, what’s so wrong with that? Why is it that in both cases a fear of the body (either in its essence, in the one case, or the discrepancy in age in the other) is supposed to constrain our connect to another? And why the hell does everyone else–whether it’s God or the folk down at the country club–get a say in it?

Reading other reviews, it’s obvious that some people just don’t get what Radiohole is doing. It’s as though their frankly earnest approach to asking questions and engaging their audiences is seen as déclassé, which, needless to say, is an extremely pretentious (and in this case, ironic) way of evaluating them. These guys aren’t your grad school avant-garde–they were smart enough (which is patently evident), but they dropped out to actually do something with their lives. (That’s metaphorically speaking; for all I know, they all have MFAs.) The company seems to exist to refute the idea that the avant-garde is the expensive French restaurant of the theater world, something to pay to go to feel uncomfortable, to struggle with a language you don’t understand, and to pretend you’re classy because because the staff treats you like crap.

Radiohole is the punk rock of avant-garde theater–they’re hard, fast, smart, and fun, experimental theater for the proletariat. Buy a ticket to their show, and they’ll even get you a beer just to make you feel at home. I preferred Fluke, but Whatever, Heaven Allows was no disappointment, and it’s inspiring that this crew is around making work the way they do.

2 thoughts on “Theater Americana: Radiohole’s “Whatever, Heaven Allows” & The Debate Society’s “Buddy Cop 2””

  1. cheryl says:

    You spelled bricolage wrong.

    1. Jeremy M. Barker says:

      Thanks. Apologies.

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