It saturates the air at "A Steady Rain." No, it's not precipitation; it's anticipation.
You can feel the audience yearning to embrace Hugh Jackman and Daniel Craig and the troubled cops they play.
Sorry, folks. That would be tougher than giving Wolverine a manicure or asking 007 to commit.
It's not that the A-list superstars don't deliver. The pair ooze confidence and charisma.
But Chicago writer Keith Huff's play is a stark and modest work that's all talk and no action. It keeps you at arm's length.
The story unfolds in back-and-forth monologues by Denny (Jackman), a family man who's on the take and his single pal and partner, Joey (Craig), who's no saint, either.
Seated on chairs under harsh lights, two of the Windy City's less-than-finest are apparently being debriefed about a disastrous, bungled investigation. It's put their jobs and friendship on the line.
The cop tale careens from bad to worse to horror movie. Imagine a putrid police blotter steeped in drugs, stabbings, baby-killing and cannibalism.
Stirring stuff, to a degree. Because we only hear about the incidents, the visceral impact is muted. And since there's no emotional keyhole to let us in, the saga hits the head, but not the gut or heart.
The moments when the play is most alive are when Scott Pask's moody set pieces come to light.
Amid all the grisly imagery, Huff seeks to comment on what it means to serve and protect - as a cop, husband, father and friend. But the drama is so fraught with calamity, even within that title metaphor, it gets contrived. That's what happens when you jam 12 episodes of a TV series about a rogue cop into 90 minutes.
Still, you can see why Jackman, a Tony winner for "The Boy from Oz," and Broadway freshman Craig were attracted to the edgy material, which is being made into a film. They never leave the stage. It's an hour-and-a-half closeup. In Chicago-ese, which they manage not to mangle.
Guided by the firm hand of British director John Crowley ("The Pillowman"), Jackman, hair greased and skin pasty, is tightly wound and highly charged as the hot-headed alpha cop.
Craig impresses even more as an ex-drunk sporting a '70s porn-star mustache, sad eyes and nervousness that masks a covetous, calculating side. His character's true nature emerges as the most interesting thing about the play.
In the end, "A Steady Rain" pours forth a familiar lesson: Megastars can turn reading the phone book into an event.
But that doesn't guarantee a wholly satisfying experience.
Big names, little show.
“A Steady Rain,” which opened on Tuesday night at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theater, is probably best regarded as a small, wobbly pedestal on which two gods of the screen may stand in order to be worshiped. Not that Daniel Craig and Hugh Jackman are striking Olympian poses in Keith Huff’s 90-minute, two-character melodrama, directed by John Crowley. On the contrary, playing a couple of all-too-human Chicago cops whose friendship is direly tested, these strapping actors work hard to tamp down associations with their super-heroic franchise film roles, that of James Bond (Mr. Craig) and the X-Man mutant known as Wolverine (Mr. Jackman).
For the record, both are just fine in their parts, and in the case of Mr. Craig, almost unrecognizable with a milquetoast mustache and cowed mien, more than fine. But it’s hard to avoid thinking that had they chosen to recite the alphabet in counterpoint (which might have been more fun), their joint appearance would still generate ticket sales unknown for a straight play since Julia Roberts appeared in Richard Greenberg’s “Three Days of Rain” (which had a cast of three instead of two) three years ago.
Note, by the way, the cabbalistic coincidence of “rain” in those titles. Perhaps superstitious producers will start looking for other plays with small casts and precipitation in their names as money-making vehicles for stars from the covers of People. How about a revival of “A Hatful of Rain” with Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart, the sweethearts of the vampires-in-love “Twilight” movies, as the drug addict and his pregnant wife? Or Lindsay Lohan as Sadie Thompson in “Rain”?
But back to the “Rain” of the moment. Previously seen at the Powerhouse Theater at Vassar and the Chicago Dramatists (with far less famous actors), “A Steady Rain” takes up a sit-dram setup made popular in gritty plays and movies of the 1930s: Best friends since childhood, in the same tough neighborhood, find themselves on different sides of the law and in love with the same woman!
Clark Gable, William Powell, James Cagney and Pat O’Brien all played one or the other side of this equation on screen. After a decade or so of hard use, that formula looked threadbare and made for parody, though it has persisted and can still be glimpsed in episodes of “Law & Order” and similar television fare.
If Mr. Huff has not managed to reweave this premise with any surprising threads, he has packed it with enough lurid incident to fill a season of “Law & Order.” The center of the play may be the changing relationship between two men: Denny, the alpha dog (Mr. Jackman), a blustery family guy with skewed notions of domestic and professional honor, and his one-man fan club, Joey (Mr. Craig), a more inhibited, slightly priggish bachelor. But, oh, the places they go and the things they see that shake a friendship that has endured since “kinnygarten” (to use the local pronunciation).
This means that while movie fans accustomed to seeing Mr. Craig and Mr. Jackman running, shooting, brawling, driving like maniacs and making savage love on screen will be denied those pleasures here, they will at least be allowed to hear their idols describe such things, in alternating accounts delivered under interrogation lamps. The adventures of Joey and Denny, which begin with the description of a drive-by shooting that tears up Denny’s living room (and one of his young sons), embrace car chases, gun fights, torture, mutilation, a mean pimp, a victimized whore, a psycho killer and illicit sex, both naughty and nice.
All this unfolds in a he-said, he-said series of recollections that might have been (marginally) more credible spoken by a couple of sweaty, paunchy American character actors instead of a buff pair of superstars from England and Australia. But in that case, “A Steady Rain” would never have made it to Broadway.
As it is, despite early reports that Mr. Craig and Mr. Jackman were having problems mastering Chicago street-speak, their accents remain mostly in place. And they tell their characters’ stories with a centeredness that confidently holds the stage, though it rarely generates excitement.
In a role that gives off an acrid whiff of the rogue cop played by Harvey Keitel in Abel Ferrara’s 1992 movie, “Bad Lieutenant,” Mr. Jackman often seems to be presenting his character more than inhabiting it. He is an incorrigibly likable entertainer, naturally at home M.C.-ing the Oscars or starring in musicals like “Oklahoma!” (in London) or “The Boy From Oz” (on Broadway). Here his polished charm and clean, expansive gestures keep us from ever recoiling from Denny, no matter how destructively he behaves.
Mr. Craig, a highly reputable stage actor in London (“Angels in America,” “A Number”) before he became the screen’s sixth James Bond, creates a more complete portrait as Joey, who emerges as a constant worrier, born with a sense of guilt and a fear of offending. Playing small, drawing in on himself as if hoping to become invisible, Mr. Craig’s Joey still registers large and lucid. And it’s amusing to watch him and Mr. Jackman as carefully contrasted, yin-and-yang studies in body language.
That style gap never closes, though, and it should. The tantalizing program and poster art for “A Steady Rain,” featuring a picture of Mr. Craig’s and Mr. Jackman’s faces blurring in intersection, suggests a merging (or reversal) of identities that would seem to be the play’s major theme. Yet Joey and Denny remain fixed in their archetypes, which makes the clichés in their stories all the more visible. (That includes the mood-setting bad weather, which inspires one of the boys to say, “I blamed it on the rain.”)
Mr. Crowley, who brilliantly staged Martin McDonagh’s “Pillowman” on Broadway in 2005, directs with restraint, elegance and limited imagination. Working with the accomplished team of Scott Pask (scenery and costumes), Hugh Vanstone (lighting) and Mark Bennett (music and sound), he occasionally has Joey and Denny’s memories assume three-dimensional form, with mean streets and forbidding woods materializing from the darkness behind them.
He needn’t have bothered. Nobody goes to “A Steady Rain,” which ends its hot-ticket limited run on Dec. 6, to look at scenery. The woman with whom I saw the show made her priorities clear afterward, and they are doubtless shared by many. If only, she said, the play had been set in a police station locker room, where the characters might frequently change clothes. As it was, she was thankful for the small mercy that, toward the play’s end, Mr. Craig finally removed his suit jacket and rolled up his sleeves.
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.