'A Steady Rain'

A compellingly sustained drama set in a dark and bruising place without clear moral pathways.

We’ve seen characters like the men in “A Steady Rain” before — frustrated city patrolmen dreaming about making detective, maybe bending the law a little yet convinced they’re doing an honest job. And we’ve seen variations on their downward spiral and partner conflict in gritty cop shows from “NYPD Blue” through “The Wire” to “Southland.” But playwright Keith Huff recharges those familiar elements by approaching events usually outlined in action terms with the probing eye of a forensics investigator and psych profiler combined. Pair that with John Crowley’s taut production, not to mention actors with the charisma and command of Daniel Craig and Hugh Jackman, and you get riveting theater.

A series of overlapping monologues interspersed with dialogue exchanges, Huff’s play premiered at Chicago Dramatists in 2007 and then transferred to a successful commercial run in the city in a modest production fronted by local actors Randy Steinmeyer and Peter DeFaria, neither of them marquee names.

The Broadway staging is inevitably inflated by star power, but Crowley has maintained the arresting spareness the work seems to dictate. There are monolithic setpieces as Chicago tenements and seedy alleys loom in the background, conjured in rich detail by designer Scott Pask out of the blackness and lit with surgical precision by Hugh Vanstone. And there’s abstemious use of Mark Bennett’s moody soundtrack, feeding the hardboiled film-noir atmosphere. But the expert balance of visual austerity with occasional descriptive embellishment — echoing the director’s work on “The Pillowman” — never intrudes on the play’s emotional intimacy.

Likewise the performances are not star turns but complex characterizations that peel back layer upon layer of reticent self-protection to reveal increasingly uncomfortable truths.

Both men start out as seasoned cop stereotypes: Joey (Craig) is the brooding, unmarried Irish-American, given to booze and solitude, accustomed to being dominated by Italian-American partner Denny (Jackman), his bullying best friend since “kinnygarten.” Denny is the volatile family man, not averse to smacking his wife or skimming cash from the hookers on his beat, but devoted to his friend, inviting him home for dinner most nights to save Joey from himself. Both have been passed over three times for detective, which Denny attributes to reverse racism.

Like the summer rain of the title that falls unrelentingly during the events being narrated, an almost biblical tide of misfortune pours down on the partners. One breach of personal or professional protocol leads to another; soon Denny’s family has been endangered by his impetuousness, and his resulting blind fury causes more serious dereliction of duty. The consequences are revealed in a somewhat sensational and inadequately foreshadowed plot turn, but the heart of Huff’s textured storytelling is less the action unfolding than the partners’ confessional responses to it.

It’s easy to imagine how the writer might turn the material inside-out to construct a more conventional screenplay (Huff is developing the film with 007 producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson, also aboard the Broadway production). But the play’s careful parsing of information and puzzle-like assembly of impressions into a complete picture is inherently theatrical.

Crowley places the two actors on chairs in the stark space under interrogation-room lights, as if debriefing the audience. Via passages of dialogue that are both gruff and poetic, Huff builds on that exposure to dig into the murky bonds of male friendship and brotherhood — the shifting lines separating loyalty from betrayal, love from resentment, honor from shame.

Craig and Jackman are onstage for the entire intermissionless 85 minutes, and Crowley is judicious in knowing when to keep them pinned to their seats and when to have them move restlessly about the stage or physicalize the events they’re recounting. When one man is talking, the other is always watching, intent on his partner’s every word, waiting to jump in with a conflicting perspective.

Denny is the flashier role with the more dramatic trajectory, and Jackman brings a powerful presence to it even if the character hasn’t quite yet become a second skin. There’s still evidence of the actor beneath the tough-talking hothead, but he shifts persuasively back and forth between easygoing volubility and the unpredictable menace of a man unwilling to relinquish control of any situation. Jackman’s natural warmth also allows us a degree of understanding and sympathy for Denny even at his most repellent. Neither Huff nor Jackman apologize for Denny’s brutality, yet it never becomes a simple bad-cop portrait.

Completely disappearing inside his character, Craig is superb. While Denny puffs himself up, Joey keeps his strength coiled; his body language is all guarded defensiveness. And while Denny is all talk and reckless action, Joey is reflective, wary and plagued by an all-seeing conscience. When the character articulates feelings he has kept hidden his entire adult life, Craig conveys both sorrow and release in a way that’s extremely moving.

As in the work of another Chicago playwright, David Mamet’s “American Buffalo,” the depth of the main characters is backed by vivid impressions of unseen secondary figures — Denny’s wife; the hooker with whom he tries to fix up Joey; her vicious pimp and his scared brother; the police superintendent. Even when the procedural elements become predictable, the world being depicted is a dark and bruising place without clear moral pathways, brought to life in compellingly sustained drama.

A Steady Rain

Gerald Schoenfeld Theater, New York for L.A.; 1,079 seats; $140 top

Production

A Frederick Zollo, Michael G. Wilson, Barbara Broccoli, Raymond L. Gaspard, Frank Gero, Cheryl Wiesenfeld, Jeffrey Sine, Michael Rose, Shubert Organization, Robert Cole presentation of a play in one act by Keith Huff. Directed by John Crowley.

Creative

Sets and costumes, Scott Pask; lighting, Hugh Vanstone; original music and sound, Mark Bennett; production stage manager, Michael J. Passaro. Opened Sept. 29, 2009. Reviewed Sept. 25. Running time: 1 HOUR, 25 MIN.

Cast

Joey - Daniel Craig Denny - Hugh Jackman

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