A cop drama on TV may require tons of resources — from a huge cast and crew to sets, props and special effects — but the new theatrical drama, A Steady Rain, is an object lesson in how little is needed to tell the same story on stage. The play whittles everything down to two lead actors on a minimal set, creating a gritty police story told solely through the art of theatrical storytelling.
The show opened in Chicago in 2007 and played on Broadway in 2009 starring Hugh Jackman and Daniel Craig. (It’s been a huge hit, with many subsequent regional productions, but the show also became mainstream news through a viral video of Jackman reacting to an audience member’s phone ringing during a Broadway performance). Anyway, turn off those phones because a new production runs at the Alliance Theatre through October 11. It’s not a perfect show, but it’s nonetheless a finely-crafted work of theater.
A Steady Rain tells the story of two cops, Joey (Thomas Vincent Kelly) and Denny (Sal Viscuso), who, even as the play opens, are near the breaking point with all the frustrations and pressures of the job. They speak directly to the audience, narrating the accumulation of circumstances — the moral decisions and psychological attrition — that lead to a tragic outcome.
One problem with the play is that the world the characters describe — the world of tough-talking cops facing difficult decisions and reaching the breaking point and so on — feels thoroughly familiar. The play’s writer and actors arrive with boatloads of impressive television credits, including director Jeff Perry, better known as Cyrus Beene in the hit show Scandal. The play’s relationship to television runs pretty deep, in its length, its subject, its theme and tone.
For better or worse, A Steady Rain often feels like a television cop drama simply presented in a new form. All of this may play out as an advantage for some viewers, who will enjoy seeing a familiar world presented in a new way, but for others, the conceits and tropes of the contemporary cop drama have entered into the realm of deadening cliché.
There are further problems in that the script indicates Denny and Joey are peers — we learn they grew up together playing and rough-housing in the same neighborhood — but the actors appear significantly different in age. It doesn’t match what we hear in the script, and even more problematically, it creates a different emotional dynamic than what’s written.
Our Joey appears to be an eager, young rookie with Denny, seemingly, the older, more cynical experienced cop. Visually, it becomes a tale of a younger man surpassing and supplanting an older colleague, which is not the most interesting aspect of the story as written; indeed, it’s not an aspect of the script at all.
Denny seems angry from the get-go, so we don’t see a strong transformation or the slow revelation of flaws and cracks. And Viscuso’s depiction of the character’s anger can often seem forced and one-noted, even marked by cartoonish seething, stomping and scowling. At a recent matinee performance, there was some stumbling over lines from both performers, a small thing, but it was surprising how distracting small mistakes could be in such a pared-down show.
Still, when it works, it works. Those who remember how much scarier and more intense a radio thriller could be than a film will understand what A Steady Rain is aiming at. It doesn’t always hit the target squarely, but its most intense and best moments will stick with you long after the show is over.