Off-Broadway theatergoers don't mind when companies ask them to use their imaginations, so long as that courtesy is returned. With the ingenious Debate Society, that creative investment is returned a thousandfold: their productions are a well-matched cocktail of cerebral cool, muscular wit, and eccentric charm. Actor-writers Hannah Bos & Paul Thureen and director-developer Oliver Butler are masters of self-improving homage: they get as much out of their productions as their audiences do. A Thought About Raya armed them with absurdity, The Eaten Heart sharpened their ability to tell short, Decameron-like stories, and the drive-through atmosphere of Cape Disappointment sharpened their cinematic aesthetic. Now, with Buddy Cop 2 (there is no "1"), they've deepened the range of their characters, mixing mind-blowing realism (Laura Jellinek's set deserves a Tony) with exquisite dreamscapes, all with an effortless charm that brings to mind a larger-scale version of L'Effet de Serge. (Mark Russell, if you're out there: the Debate Society is an excellent fit for the Under the Radar Festival.)
Does the Debate Society realize what a gift it is to the downtown theater scene? That would explain their gift-wrapped set, behind which comes the persistent thumping of a handball. As this "curtain" is ripped open, it reveals the three-room-deep headquarters of a small-town police office which, due to water damage, has taken over the gymnasium of the local rec center. It also quickly tells us a lot about its residents: Don McMurchie (a serious and never-better Michael Cyril Creighton), frustratedly fields non-emergency calls while his co-workers Terry Olsen (Paul Thureen) and newcomer Darlene Novak (Hannah Bos) play racquetball in the background. As the scenes progress, we'll learn a lot more about them, from the story behind Don's background check and his community chorus-singing to how Terry's nonchalance toward administrative work is balanced by his all-business approach to horrific crime. No-one, after hearing Darlene attempt to get her mother off the phone, or seeing her compromise away her nonrefundable honeymoon suite, will have any doubts about why she's such a brisk, competitive woman. (And let's not forget the Glug.)
Learning about these characters is the story of Buddy Cop 2: the play is at its weakest (which is still pretty damn strong) in the between-scenes monologues of young Brandi and Skylar (both played by Monique Vukovic), both of which are more direct (not having anything natural to play against) and more cryptic (how else to describe shadows?) than anything else in the show. In fact, aside from the frequent racquetball challenges, there is little overt action on stage: perhaps the play is titled as a sequel to demonstrate that it is far more interested in aftermaths and consequences than in the obvious causes themselves. In any case, there is more than enough to cope with here: if the devil's in the details, this company is going to hell in a gold-plated handbasket.
The intimacy of the Theater at St. Mark's Church-in-the-Bowery (where The Eaten Heart played) does wonders for the Debate Society, a group that--for all its illusions--has nothing to hide. Long-time collaborators like Mike Riggs (lighting), Sydney Maresca (costumes), Nathan Leigh (sound), and Amy Ehrenberg (stage management) ensure that things run as smoothly as they look, which allows Butler to focus on making the actors as casually enchanting as the beer-can-and-Christmas-presents decor. (Everyone succeeds.) Buddy Cop 2 feels like a real buddy of a play, you just want to hang out in its warm (only occasionally terrifying) glow all night.