'A Steady Rain' Disappoints on Broadway

October 21, 2009

So the big noise on Broadway this fall is a little two-character piece originally directed by Chicago Dramatists artistic director Russ Tutterow from a script by Keith Huff, one of the troupe's resident playwrights. Those two names aren't, of course, the reason for the big noise. That's attributable to two other names: Daniel (James Bond) Craig and Hugh (Wolverine) Jackman. They star in "A Steady Rain" as a pair of Chicago cops whose work and love lives collapse, taking their friendship down at the same time. Theater A Steady Rain Opening Night My colleague Jonathan Abarbanel regards this as "the most cynical piece of casting imaginable" and warned me to be on the watch for tell-tale signs of falsity to Chicago, such as busted accents or the use of New York-style Greek-lettered paper cups instead of styrofoam cups for coffee. The New York critics were not much kinder, though they're equally divided between ones blaming those damn movie-star actors and ones arguing that the play itself is a waste of time--even at a breezy 90 minutes with no intermission. In fact, though, neither the actors nor the play is at fault. If the production doesn't work--and it doesn't--it's because its New York director has no idea what the play is about. "A Steady Rain" is a sort of "Persona" of cop dramas: it traces the way Denny, the family man, turns into his friend Joey, the bachelor who cares about nothing but his addiction, while Joey is busy turning into Denny. Obviously the artist who designed the Broadway poster understood this: he created an image with the faces of the two actors overlapping and merging. What a shame he didn't share his insight with director John Crowley. Instead, Crowley has directed the show as if it were a genre good cop/bad cop piece--a "sit-dram," to borrow the New York Times' dismissive term. But the problem isn't that the play lacks originality or genuineness--it's that Crowley has directed every surface of the text without once getting to its not-very-hidden meaning. Jackman and Craig work hard to shed their celebrity--quite a challenge in a theater full of cellphone cameras--and at first I thought their overly energetic performances were designed to interrupt any applaud-the-star impulses the audience might have been harboring. But soon it became apparent that they were performing at the speed of light because they'd been directed that way--as if Crowley thought the play's intimate nature and leisurely pace were obstacles to be overcome instead of strengths to be brought out. Ironically, the result of this directorial misapprehension is that a play about two men turning into each other becomes a production in which it's difficult to tell the two actors apart. I'm delighted for Keith Huff that his first show in New York attracted so much attention. (Unlike Jonathan, I regard marquee casting as a device by which screen actors support the stage, shining their personal spotlight onto plays deserving notice that otherwise wouldn't get it.) And if this brings long-overdue kudos to the new play development efforts at Chicago Dramatists, that would be good, too--especially if it means that the next time someone takes a Chicago Dramatists play to New York they'll know enough to take Russ Tutterow with them. Other Chicago news from Times Square: "Superior Donuts," despite surprisingly good reviews for what's nothing more than a well-acted sitcom, has people working street corners with discount coupons. As this is in addition to selling Donuts tickets at the half-price TKTS booth, it's not a sign of health. Broadway has more houses open than at any time in memory, and some plays are going to get crushed. I suspect Donuts will be among the first to go. Other screen-star news from New York: "God of Carnage," by the playwright who wrote "Art," is very much in the model of that earlier piece: privileged people bickering to no obvious point. Of course this is catnip to actors, being an engraved invitation to tour-de-force, and Jeff Daniels, James Gandolfini and Hope Davis do nearly as well as Marcia Gay Harden, who won a Tony for her performance. But the words they're saying have barely any meaning at all. Why on earth did this piece win last year's Tony for best play? Imagine "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" without any secrets or sex and you've got the picture. Jude Law is a splendid Hamlet, and it's clear that's all the thinking the director did about the play: "Jude Law would be a splendid Hamlet." So he cast a dull Polonious, a Claudius without the energy to be wicked, and an Ophelia with no sparkle and less madness, and turned them all loose. Because Hamlet himself speaks nearly half the play's lines, Law's performance makes the whole thing worth seeing--he's physically graceful, precise in speech, and fresh and thoughtful in the role--but just imagine what a splendid Hamlet he'd be in an actual production! Anna Deavere Smith's new show "Let Me Down Easy" is somewhat about health care but mostly about people's relationships with their bodies--to Lance Armstrong it's a tool of success or failure; to Eve Ensler it's (of course) a gigantic vagina, and so on. Again, as Smith impersonates all these people the opportunities for tour-de-force are legion, and she doesn't resist any of them. Honestly, Smith's shtick is becoming a bit over-familiar, like Mary Zimmerman's blue-sheets-stand-for-water gesture. "Let Me Down Easy" is absorbing but rarely moving, and that's a weakness in a show about life and death. Art news from New York: The Kandinsky retrospective at the Guggenheim is one of those rare exhibits actually suited to display along Frank Lloyd Wright's twisted promenade, and as a result it's outrageously good. Ignore the free audio guide and just soak in the colors and forms: now the painter pays homage to Chagall; now his work is influenced by his flatmate Paul Klee; now he's off on an explosive riff of his own. His marvelous palette is set off at the very top of the ramp by another artist's work: a ceiling-to-floor fall of golden beads, which capture and remix the light. It feels like the icing on the Kandinsky cake. And finally, food (or is it?) news from New York: Treating a pair of friends, I managed to spend an outrageous sum of money at a so-called micro-gastronomy restaurant, wd50. Every single item served was both unrecognizable and unpalatable: vanilla ice cream infused with balsamic vinegar; an "Eggs Benedict" featuring fried cheese and frozen egg yolks. This place is among the latest and greatest and chic-est, but trust me: avoid, avoid. The chef has no clothes.
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