Though only 20 years old, Dennis McIntyre's police drama feels like a period piece, commenting on racism in the 1940s, the '80s, and more subtly on conditions today. McIntyre, who had only a few mild successes before dying in 1990 at 47, crafted a simple tale, which, hampered here by uneven direction, drags at several points. But the mostly solid cast salvages the production in the second act, building up to a taut -- even surprising -- climax.
It's unfortunate that the biggest liability in writing, acting, and directing is the key opening scene, in which Val Johnson (William Christopher Stephens), a police officer who is African-American, catches a white man (a stiff and unbelievable Taber Schroeder) trying to steal a car. Val cuffs him and calls for transportation. But after the man's pleas to let him loose turn to racist insults, Val kills him with one shot to the heart, then stages the scene to look like an accident. Val spends the rest of the play talking to his wife (Janora McDuffie), retired-cop father (Ernest Harden Jr.), and friend (James T. Lawson II) about whether he should admit the truth to his suspicious captain (Gary Robinson).
Except for the final scene, the plot and dialogue is predictable, but Stephens, as Val, provides a solid anchor. His brooding demeanor and judicious use of violent rage give weight to the psychologically tortured officer. The strongest scenes are between Val and his wife, thanks to McDuffie's realistic portrayal. She gradually builds from gentle and passive to angrily defiant, which further confuses Val about the right thing to do.
The direction, attributed to J.W.J., is spotty, with a clumsily staged opening and too much dead time that lessens the tension. With virtually no set and minimal lighting (both credited to J.W.J.), there is little to augment the words and performances -- and Split Second is a play that needs assistance to have lasting impact.
Presented by Native Tongue Rep at the Next Stage Theatre,
1523 N. La Brea Ave., L.A.
Thu. 8 p.m. Nov. 8-Dec. 13.