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Detective Story
Festival Theatre
By Sidney Kingsley, 1949
Directed by Neil Munro

Play summary | Globe and Mail review

From the program:

The play takes place in the squad room of a police precinct station in New York City, one August afternoon in the late 1940s. One detective is processing a woman charged with shoplifting, another is on the phone taking a burglary report. Gradually, more and more people come into and through this busy intersection of life in post-war Manhattan.

The story begins to focus on one of the detectives, Jim McLeod, a crusading cop with a genuine hatred for crime. He has arrested Arthur Kindred for stealing $480 from his employer, and despite the young man's fine war record and obvious penitence, is determined that the charges go forward. At the same time, McLeod is anxious to interview another man who is just being brought into custody - an abortionist whom he knows to have killed some desperate young women, but who has thus far eluded any punishment for their deaths.

The Globe and Mail's review:

Testing the limits of law and order
Saturday, May 25, 2002 Print Edition, Page R4

Rating: ***

They don't make plays like Detective Story any more.

This 1949 drama by the American playwright Sidney Kingsley features 34 characters, three major plot lines and a couple of subplots all contained within a single summer evening and a single big space -- the squad room of New York's fictional 21st precinct.

On the main stage of the Shaw Festival, director Neil Munro leads us through the action with a master's hand, drawing the eye from one corner to another, bringing one scene forward while another drops back, leading us surely from laughter to horror. Assisted by Alan Brodie's fine lighting design which initially throws the whole room into mottled shadow and the hazily delineated lines of set designer Cameron Porteous's grey backdrop, Munro directs Detective Story with all the fluidity of film, the very medium that has obliterated such stage plays.

Detective Story is often saluted as the first slice-of-life portrayal of the cop shop, precursor to television's NYPD Blue, but in truth the realism is very carefully orchestrated so that three separate cases collapse into one potent story that is just a shade too melodramatic to actually achieve tragedy. There's a room full of characters wonderfully observed by the Shaw cast, from Sarah Orenstein's startled young shoplifter to William Vickers's decent old journalist by way of numerous detectives in varying shades of toughness and humanity played by Robert Benson, Jim Mezon, Norman Browning, Mike Wasko and Guy Bannerman.

But the central figure here is Detective McLeod (Peter Krantz), the crusading cop convinced that evil has a stench any child can smell. He is violently determined to get a conviction of back-alley abortionist Kurt Schneider (Lorne Kennedy) but is finally forced by his own wife (Jane Perry) to confront some shades of grey. He's also coming down hard on the young Second World War vet Arthur Kindred (Jeff Meadows), who has committed a forgivable first offence, while the two inept burglars played by George Dawson and Dylan Trowbridge provide the third story line, which is mainly one of comic relief.

Munro carefully dampens the clichés here and delivers the drama. The stories are gripping; the script is refreshingly forthright about abortion and even homosexuality in the prisons, and Kingsley's ultimate message about the dangers of fascistic state power is strongly delivered (by Neil Barclay in the role of the abortionist's haughty lawyer).

It's the romantic bits that are harder to stomach, and in particular the encounter between Meadows's shamefaced Kindred and Fiona Byrne's overly ebullient version of the lovestruck young woman who comes to rescue the vet is only excruciating. Scenes between McLeod and his wife are also hard to believe, although Perry delivers a solid performance as a Mrs. McLeod painfully awakening to the realities of her husband's unforgiving character.

The significant difficulty here is that Kingsley's script cannot fully rise to tragedy -- its characterization of McLeod is too glib and his unravelling too brief -- and that Krantz himself cannot finesse that. He is often a rather stiff-backed performer, which serves him well here when he is delineating the hard lines that McLeod draws in life, but he cannot make the man's final collapse plausible, let alone poignant. The play's achievements are satisfyingly large but its limits are no less clear.
Detective Story continues at the Festival Theatre in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., to Sept. 21. For information call: 1-800-511-7429.
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