My Kind of Town sets up CSI-esque legal intrigue
My Kind of Town sets up CSI-esque legal intrigue Credit: Lara Goetsch

Former Reader staffer John Conroy spent 17 years reporting on systematic police torture at Chicago’s Area 2 headquarters. His meticulous, evenhanded coverage should’ve sparked civic outrage, forced massive police reform, and toppled Mayor Daley. It would probably have won him a Pulitzer, too, had he been writing for a daily newspaper—though it’s doubtful that a daily would’ve printed his stories, and not just because the first one, “House of Screams,” ran to nearly 20,000 words. For most of those 17 years the mainstream media—along with the legal world and the public at large—responded to Conroy’s revelations with a collective shrug. Cops were roughing up poor black men with long rap sheets, forcing them to confess to violent crimes? Well, as long as our streets are safe . . .

So it was painful to sit in the opening-night audience for My Kind of Town, Conroy’s new drama based on his Reader investigations, and hear TimeLine Theatre Company artistic director P.J. Powers say he hopes the show will “spark a much larger conversation.” Civic engagement is a fine thing, but the time for that conversation has long passed—much to the city’s collective shame.

TimeLine will nevertheless host three panel discussions on police torture during the show’s 12-week run, following common practice for theaters producing “issue” plays. It’s as though the folks at companies like TimeLine believe they need experts to explain what plays can only approximate. And in a way, they’re right. Playwrights aren’t equipped to investigate scandals or substantiate allegations any more than reporters can get at the facts of a murder by parsing Hamlet. Journalists tell us what’s happening, playwrights show us how it affects the soul.

Conroy hasn’t absorbed that key difference between investigative and dramatic writing. Directed with great clarity but little style by Nick Bowling, this premiere production of his first play bounces haphazardly between procedural thriller and family tragedy without adequately developing either.

Most of My Kind of Town‘s first 15 minutes is given over to an examination of the legal web that’s ensnared a young, black death row inmate named Otha Jeffries, who claims that Area 2 detective Dan Breen and his cronies got him to confess to a double murder by hooking him up to a pair of mysterious black boxes and giving him repeated electric shocks. Jeffries’s lawyer, Robert Morales, leads his client through an extraordinarily perfunctory interview, setting up what appear to be the play’s primary questions: Where are these alleged black boxes? Why has no other prisoner made a similar complaint? How can it be that assistant state’s attorney Maureen Buckley, who took Jeffries’s confession at Area 2, didn’t know about the abuse? And what about the other Area 2 cops? Just how extensive is the cover-up?

Sounds like the makings for a great CSI. But as it turns out, the answers aren’t hard to find even if you don’t check out TimeLine’s lobby display chronicling the scandal. Conroy resolves these mysteries halfway through act one. Yet he keeps returning to the intricacies of Jeffries’s legal battle, trying to create intrigue where little exists.

It’s when he goes beyond the legal battle to focus on the collateral damage that Conroy plants the seeds of a thrillingly complicated moral drama. Breen’s wife, Ann, tries to believe that her husband just wants to keep the community safe yet begins to fear she’s married a monster. Buckley knows Breen is dirty but also realizes that speaking the truth will jeopardize her livelihood as well as the integrity of Chicago’s law enforcement system. And though Jeffries’s mother, Rita, spends the early part of the play trying to get her son’s conviction reversed, she finds herself suppressing evidence when she sees how mentally and emotionally dysfunctional death row has made him: bringing him back home could destroy her life.

Played with devastating conviction by the masterful Ora Jones, Rita embodies the sort of truth that belongs at the center of great drama. It’s a shame her truth isn’t central to My Kind of Town.

Violent cops also populate Dog & Pony Theatre Company‘s new “play with music,” The Whole World Is Watching. Staged promenade-style in a second-floor rehearsal room at the Victory Gardens Biograph Theater, TWWIW condenses the week of mayhem that was Chicago’s 1968 Democratic National Convention into 80 minutes of headlines, topic sentences, and bullet points.

Yippies and Black Panthers make impassioned speeches. Hippies get high and spread love. Cops hate the freaks and try unsuccessfully to stay cool. A pair of idealistic McCarthy staffers learn how undemocratic police with nightsticks can be. A reporter tries to figure out what the hell is going on. This is theater as Wikipedia entry.

Rife with bumper-sticker-ready lines (“every day is a revolution”), the lite-rock anthems by writer-director Devon De Mayo and writer-composer Stephen Ptacek are gorgeously sung by a gung ho cast of 13. They’re all so earnest you might think something important was going on.