Considering A Steady Rain, the new drama about two Chicago cops facing excessive precipitation and other forms of dissolution, we must pause first to acknowledge its genius. That is not to say that this, the New York debut of playwright Kevin Huff, which opened last night at the Geral Schoenfeld Theatre, is a brilliant play. But if it were written expressly for contemporary, Hollywood-star Broadway, then it served its purpose brilliantly.
It is a two-character drama that consists almost entirely of direct addresses to the audience by its characters, who are both onstage for the full 90 minutes of the production, and who each get several lengthy and emotional speeches, which provide excellent opportunities for movie-star types venturing to New York to prove they can act.
The two parts are equally weighted, which means they can be equally billed, which means one movie star won’t be worried about seeming overshadowed by the other. This means that movie stars, happy with the scripts and its speeches, will take the parts; producers, happy with the movie-star casting, will put on the show; audiences, eager to see the movie stars, will pay money to see it. Everyone wins, especially the playwright, a veteran Chicago author who figured out how to get a show onto Broadway.
In his play, Denny and Joey are beat cops; they’re partners and lifelong best friends. It’s an unbalanced friendship, and always has been: Denny, the insecure cool kid, likes having a nebbishy acolyte to wield power over; Joey, the loser, likes having a cool best friend. Denny has a wife and two kids and a house with—as he proudly boasts in the opening scene—several large-screen TVs. Joey lives alone and is alone; he spends most nights at Denny’s for family dinner. Denny, in khakis and a sport shirt, with greased-back hair, takes pride in what he keeps calling “the good life”; he also bends the rules at work and extorts prostitutes for protection money and is convinced he can’t make sergeant because he’s white. (“They should start tolerating my intolerance,” he says of his superiors, resentfully.) Joey is a belt-and-suspenders guy—in fact, belt, suspenders and tie clip, under his gray suit—who spends his time cleaning up Denny’s messes.
Hugh Jackman and Daniel Craig, as you’re no doubt aware, are the movie stars who play the cops. Mr. Jackman, known to movie audiences as Wolverine in the X-Men films, is known to theatergoers as Peter Allen in The Boy From Oz and that guy who hosts the Tonys pretty well, if not quite as well as Neil Patrick Harris. Daniel Craig, the current James Bond, has done theater work in London—he played the closeted Mormon Joe Pitt in the British premiere of Angels in America—but makes his Broadway debut in A Steady Rain.
Over the course of one summer—a rainy summer—Denny and Joey’s lives and friendship come apart. The spare and elegant set (by Scott Pask, who also did the costumes; lighting is by Hugh Vanstone), which consists of two chairs on a mostly bare stage with two floodlights overhead, suggests an interrogation room, and A Steady Rain unfolds as they recount the story, sometimes as testimony, sometimes to each other, sometimes in scenes of what went wrong.
Directed by John Crowley, it’s an episode of The Shield, played in flashback. It manages to pull at heartstrings—not once but twice at the preview I attended, the audience sighed aloud at sad plot revelations—without making us care much about the characters, who are one-dimensionally unpleasant from the moment we meet them: One’s an asshole, the other’s a sad sack.
But as a showcase for these two actors, the thing seems almost purpose-built. Both actors adopt the long vowels and gruff manner of South Side Chicago. Mr. Jackman’s doesn’t quite work; there’s always a hint of his natural Australian accent. Indeed, while he gives Denny the necessary braggadocio and wounded charisma, he never stops being Hugh Jackman: a showman who’s playing a part, if very competently. Mr. Craig, however, nails the accent, and nails the role. He is spectacular, burying himself inside a cheap suit and floppy mustache and becoming a beaten-down, working-class Midwesterner. There’s no trace of James Bond; he has turned himself into William H. Macy.