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AN INTERESTING premise got lost on its way to the African-American Cultural Center stage. In "Split Second" we have a black cop who shoots a white man and the consequences that follow.

Sure, the dead man was a common thief and a thug to boot, but he was still white.

Which brings us to the question: Was it a justifiable homicide or an execution?

By the time the endless discourses have dissolved into the rafters, the only question on one's mind is: Who cares?

"Split Second," written by Dennis McIntyre, is a tedious work liberally sprinkled with obscenities seemingly for the sake of injecting life into some poorly delineated characters.

The story involves Val Johnson, a young black cop played by Richard Satterwhite, who shoots a man in the process of stealing a car. Johnson survives a grilling by a skeptical Detective Parker, played by Kinzy Brown, but then goes deeper into the psychological tank.

Concocting one story after another, he wrestles himself into a psychic frazzle.

Whether he can rationalize his act and assuage his conscience is at the heart of "Split Second." In a Captain Queeg finale, while making his official statement, Johnson makes his decision.

Though there is a cast of five, virtually all the scenes are two-character. The dialogue is mostly a pitch-and-catch affair. Johnson's wife, played by Toni Randolph, simply feeds him lines. Some are too brutal to be taken seriously.

For instance, Mrs. Johnson gets him to confide what really happened at the killing. Yet her reaction isn't amazement or shock or befuddlement. She merely asks about the status of the handcuffs and the whereabouts of the thug's knife. It's as if Detective Parker wasn't using those lines, so the wife decided to borrow them.

Later she begins taking on the character of Lady Macbeth, a huge contrast for the Act 1 character who was given nothing but five-word questions to ask. ("Did he have a knife?" "How big was the knife?")

By Act 2 she's actually turning the incident into an act of civil righteousness. But if this major reversal is needed, why give that role to an actress making her stage debut, as is Randolph?

Director Laverne Clay had his work cut out for him with the script; the direction, unfortunately, played down to the writing.

For the most part, actors are either standing still or overgesticulating, an unfortunate habit of Noland McFarland, who plays Johnson's buddy and sounding board.

Satterwhite plays Johnson sympathetically but tends to be overly aggressive. He comes off as an antique boiler on the verge of losing a row of bolts.

Brown, however, plays the role of the interrogator well, delving into sarcasm if it serves the purpose. Even while taunting Johnson he maintains a professional air, and this makes Parker perhaps the most believable character on stage. The resonant voice doesn't hurt, either.

Raymond A. Smith plays Johnson's father, an extraneous character who, in Harry Chapin fashion, sees his son grow up to be like him.

A stronger cast may have covered some the script's weaknesses. But let's face it: It would take the entire Barrymore family -- and the Fondas -- to make "Split Second" work.

Through June 24.

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