I was troubled after the opening of the West Coast Premiere of Chicago playwright Keith Huff’s A Steady Rain at Marin Theatre Company. I couldn’t shake the feeling that this play belongs in a tiny, storefront theatre, if anywhere at all.
The dubious construction of the script made it feel like a tele-play: A Steady Rain concerns two lifelong friends and not-so-fine Chicago cops – Denny, the family man and unpredictable alpha-male who is on the take, and Joey, his weak-willed drunk of a partner. In a torrent of flashbacks, they confess a series of fantastical events which lead to a frenzied and violent conclusion that puts their friendship, careers, and Denny’s family into extinction.
Utilizing interchanging monologues (with occasional breaks into dialogue), the cops break the fourth wall, speaking straight-forward as if in an interrogation room, but the setting – just two chairs and two overhead flood lamps – feels inadequate in a 231-seat house.
For over two decades, Chicago playwright Keith Huff wrote some 60 plays as he traversed the storefront theater scene. When he wrote A Steady Rain, the larger theaters in Chicagoland passed it up, but the 77-seat Chicago Dramatists produced it with local performers Randy Steinmeyer and Peter DeFaria in 2007.
Based on the ecstatic reviews and the strength of the actors, commercial producers mounted a production at the 193-seat Royal George Theatre (across from The Steppenwolf), testing the waters for an off-Broadway outing. The reviews were still good, but any issues with the script (“elements of the plot strain credulity” said one reviewer) were overlooked by the magnificent performances. No one saw Steinmeyer and DeFaria as actors – they were Chicago cops. Still, the hunt for other actors began as producers hoped for a more financially successful run.
Well, producer Barbara Broccoli (of the last nine James Bond films) got the script to Bond number six, Daniel Craig, who signed on immediately. Co-starring Hugh “Wolverine” Jackman, A Steady Rain opened on Broadway in 2009 at the 1,079-seat Schoenfeld Theatre for a three-month run, generating $15 million in ticket sales! According to the Chicago Tribune, the original Windy City actors, who clearly had a huge hand in the salability of the project, were offered house seats for $130 a pop.
While some New York critics scattered pleasantries about this event (and that’s what it was – a happening), the remarks about the script were mixed to scathing: “Hoary convention,” “Middling writing,” “A minor, melodramatic little play,” “Pulpy, plot-heavy entertainment,” “Not especially memorable as a drama,” “A cliché-filled pile of good-cops-gone-bad tropes” and “This is a basic-cable-grade stuff, Mr. Huff. It’s not even HBO. It’s TV. You’ve got a voice. Go get a subject.”
Ouch. Even the favorable reviews, which preferred Craig’s performance over Jackman’s, commented on problems with the play. But it’s too late. The damn thing has been on Broadway and now estimable companies such as MTC and other theaters across the land will no doubt be producing this ninety-minute, intermissionless, cheap-to-produce, fair-to-middling script with enticements such as, “this lurid Broadway sensation will have you holding your breath with its in-your-face storytelling.”
While I wouldn’t be quite so harsh on the script (New York critics had high expectations with that stellar cast), it does have some serious flaws. Rarely do the two cops actually interact and crash with each other – this interferes with the combustibility of both their relationship and the visceral storytelling.
Also, the occurrences are only talked about, reducing the palpability of the story. At first, the effect is uncanny: the cops separately recount an evening when Denny brings a prostitute home as a dinner date for Joey, and we can actually envision not only the brokenhearted woman when she is rejected by the milquetoast cop, but the dining table, the beer bottles, and Denny’s wife, Connie.
Soon enough, the device begins to fall in on itself and the menagerie of miscreants that inhabit the boys’ story – a revengeful pimp, a lactating whore, a cannibalistic surfer dude a la Jeffrey Dahmer – make Huff’s script seem like someone put 12 episodes of a TV cop-drama into a trash compactor and then staged it without the profundity necessary for truly unsettling theater.
No doubt Huff has an ear for the Chicago Cop patois (he has a policeman, a detective, and a court stenographer in his family). I have met and chatted with cops in Chicago, both the donut-eating passive type and the rough-and-tumble sort, and Huff nails their vernacular perfectly. Still, the stories need to be told in a small theater. Imagine a ghost-story told by a campfire, and then the same chilling tale told at the Coliseum.
The MTC production could have benefitted from a multi-media approach or some other technical elements to heighten the drama and establish the noir aspect. Director Meredith McDonough added nothing more to the proceedings than some taut staging. As the story progressed, why didn’t she have her actors do more imaginary prop work? Since the themes of adultery, murder, and good cop/bad cop are prevalent, why not have lighting designer Lucas Krech project shafts of light through window blinds? Sound designer Chris Houston could have had a field day with sirens, thunder, and other arresting aural displays. Truly, this play needs all the help it can get in a larger space.
Lastly, the actors. Both Khris Lewin as Denny and Kevin Rolston as Joey are entirely admirable in their performances. That’s a shitload of dialogue they’ve got, and they both nailed some solid emotional work, and were responsible for relating the vivid imagery with assurance. No one can fault them for not giving it their all; but they simply were not the perfect pair for the play. Lewin comes off as the hunky New York detective and Rolston feels more like a soul-shrunken shoe salesman; neither has the visage of a working-Joe cop in Chicago, ones who are completely worn down by walking the beat in a hellish part of town. Plus, their accents were still a work-in-progress.
Maybe it’s the implausible but not wholly inconceivable tale; maybe it’s the structure of the dialogue; maybe it’s the size of the house; but instead of feeling like I was punched in the gut, A Steady Rain just left me out in the cold.
photos by Ed Smith
A Steady Rain
Marin Theatre Company in Mill Valley (Bay Area Theatre)
scheduled to end on February 26
for tickets, visit http://www.marintheatre.org