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Dealing in Betrayal : Police officer's son produces a play concerning the FBI entrapment of an honest man who finally succumbs.

March 31, 1995|T.H. McCULLOH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; T.H. McCulloh writes regularly about theater for The Times.

STUDIO CITY — The media has made us very aware. Today we can watch the workings of government in detail, and we can catch every nuance, every ticktock of the turning wheels of law enforcement. What isn't out in the open soon will be.

When Matthew Witten's FBI drama "The Deal" was first seen in Los Angeles, it might have come as a surprise to some audiences. Not today. The revival of "The Deal," opening tonight under the auspices of Rojo Productions at the Two Roads Theatre, is a powerful reminder of what the playwright considers the unhealthy state of society and some law enforcement practices that purportedly help to keep things in line.

The play deals with an FBI sting operation in the small working-class city of Burnie, Pa., just outside Pittsburgh. Rojo's producer, Pat Tanzillo, who also plays one of the FBI agents, relates how his Chicago background, as the son of a 32-year police veteran, played an important role in the decision to stage "The Deal."

"The play has a lot to do with betrayal," Tanzillo says. "And it has a lot to do with friendship, and knowing what I grew up with, when cases bothered my father. Especially now, a lot of police officers get accused of certain things to get a case mounted, and I think it's unwarranted sometimes. In this play, there's evidence of betraying a friendship. The FBI agent has a tape with which he ends up betraying an alderman in Pittsburgh."

The agent becomes a friend of the honest alderman at the same time he is entrapping him.

Ted Schwartz, who is directing the play, adds: "They tempt someone beyond his ability to cope with it. The guy was honest for many years, but they just keep putting temptation in his path. It is entrapment. They buttered him up."

Tanzillo remembers his Chicago youth as he considers his role as the FBI agent. There are strong resemblances in his mind between the policemen he knew and his role.

"I grew up having a lot of faith in the police department," Tanzillo says. "It was kind of nice being a police officer's son, because you grow up with a safety net. You could get out of trouble. Thank God, I was a good kid. But that happens a lot, where you can get out of trouble if you know the right people.

"Police officers always do stick together. And they try to make the best case possible. I grew up watching and learning, by my father trying to put a good case together, trying to avoid some loophole, someone getting out of it. And how it affected him personally."

Similarly, the FBI agent in the play finally anguishes over the entrapment he is involved in and has to examine what his life and career have been about.

Social issues have been a key factor in Tanzillo's Rojo Productions since its formation in 1988. From the lost, hospitalized Vietnam veterans in the company's first production, James McLure's "Pvt. Wars," to the unplanned pregnancy in last year's "Careless Love," the idea behind the play has always been important.

When Rojo has financed its own stagings, a quarter of the income has been donated to a corresponding charity. This production, funded by a private investor, won't allow that. But Rojo's social consciousness remains: Tanzillo says this is the company's first play with specific political import, in this case about the government.

Tanzillo is adamant that the officers he knew through his father never tried to make a case if they didn't have the evidence. As he says, "The FBI is shifty in their ways. They have to go undercover to get their evidence."

"One of the lines in the play that rings true is when the agent says to his boss, 'How do you expect us to catch these people if we don't go undercover?' It's your word against his, someone's lying, and you can't prove it in a court of law. Sometimes you have to cross the line to be able to bring guilty people in. That's what a lot of law enforcement officers have to deal with on a day-by-day basis."

Schwartz, an actor-director who played Lenny Bruce in "Lenny" on Broadway, replacing Cliff Gorman in the role, says he has to be able to relate to a play if he's going to work on it.

"Does it have people I can identify with?" he says. "Is it a situation I can identify with? This certainly has all the elements. The whole entrapment thing is so interesting. We've had too much of that in recent years, like with Marion Barry in Washington. These are things that people can look at."

Where and When

What: "The Deal."

Location: Two Roads Theatre, 4348 Tujunga Ave., Studio City.

Hours: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday. Indefinitely.

Price: $12.

Call: (213) 660-8587.

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