If you sliced up a couple episodes of “Law and Order” and put the pieces back together in random order, you might come up with something resembling Kia Corthron’s “Force Continuum,” a decidedly muddled new play making its world premiere at the Atlantic Theater Co.
The playwright’s subject — the fraught relationship between urban cops and the black community — is certainly a potent one, but that may be part of the problem. Incidents related to this incendiary issue make headlines regularly, and Corthron seems to have felt the need to include aspects of all of them in her play. It’s as if she studied all the germane cases (Amadou Diallo, Rodney King, racial profiling in New Jersey, etc.), wrote a few explosive scenes and anguished monologues relating to each one and tossed them together indiscriminately. “Force Continuum” is a pile of newspaper clippings in search of a play.
The protagonist, who has his work cut out for him maintaining his status as such amid the play’s welter of incident, is a black New York City cop named Dece (Chad L. Coleman, giving the play’s standout performance). He lives with his grandfather, an ex-cop himself (Dece’s dead parents both were officers, too, and they make an appearance in a long flashback).
Grandfather is a somewhat stagy figure, played with stiff gravitas by David Fonteno. He’s an armchair philosopher who spends most of his time dispensing moral lessons, practical wisdom (“Most vital police work: prevention”) or plain old exposition. We even get a bald statistic or two, as when gramps reminds Dece that while whites make up only 43% of New York’s population, they make up 72% of the police force.
Other scenes in the early going have a similarly didactic edge, as when Dece and his white partner Flip stop a black driver who’s run a red light (or so Flip claims), and the driver complains, “Fourth time I been stopped in three weeks. This the first time I been given a ticket. (Or a) reason.”
Corthron’s characters tend to speak in dense thickets of sentence fragments, a stylistic tic that doesn’t help in the clarity department. Nor does the play’s structure as a broad collage of brief scenes set in numerous locations, a style better suited to TV or film than the stage. Michael John Garces’ direction lacks the sharpness, speed and focus that the play desperately needs.
One of the play’s few entirely polemic-free scenes introduces us to siblings Dray and Mrai. The casual warmth and sensitivity this scene brings to the play is welcome, and it suggests that with fewer topical points to make, Corthron might be a more engaging writer. But the easygoing mood quickly evaporates when both siblings — yes, both — fall victim to separate incidents of violence at the hands of cops.
We never find out just what happened to the young man (the next time we see him he’s in the hospital with a cast on one arm and won’t speak to his sister), but moments later we witness Mrai’s accidental death in the custody of Dece and Flip. There is an investigation, much anguish on the part of both cops, more (unrelated) violent cop-civilian encounters, several gunshots and one suicide. Eventually Dece, too, is undone by the complexities of his divided life during a drug bust.
A strict adherence to thematic relevance overrides everything else here, including narrative logic, character depth and sheer plausibility. The resulting play certainly addresses its chosen topic with thoroughness, but with little subtlety or overall dramatic impact.
The particular anguish of a black police officer is a potentially moving subject, and Corthron’s Dece could be a compelling character, but he gets lost in the cross traffic here. His martyrdom fails to move us because it’s too neat — a strange fate for a character in a distinctly messy play.