Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - September 29, 2009
A Steady Rain by Keith Huff. Directed by John Crowley. Scenic and costume design by Scott Pask. Lighting design by Hugh Vanstone. Original music and sound design by Mark Bennett. Cast: Daniel Craig and Hugh Jackman.
Hugh Jackman’s and Daniel Craig’s names hardly need to be mentioned, of course. They’ve been setting fire to the box office, and have already made this play a monster-sized hit and 2009-2010’s first true must-see. After all, Jackman is Wolverine from the super-popular X-Men movie franchise, and Craig is the current and highly acclaimed James Bond. These men, who can (and do) command multimillion-dollar salaries without batting an eye, taking on a 90-minute two-hander written by a largely unknown playwright and staged by a director (John Crowley) who’s also not a household name is in itself an event.
These two are different, however, because they don’t need to “learn the ropes.” Jackman won his Tony for playing Peter Allen in The Boy From Oz in 2003, was a West End smash in Trevor Nunn’s lamentable 1998 reconception of Oklahoma!, and starred in Sunset Blvd. and Beauty and the Beast in his native Australia before that. Craig starred in high-profile productions of Hurlyburly and Angels in America in London, and originated the role of the triplicate young man in Caryl Churchill’s A Number. Even audiences that can’t place either or both as existing beyond the local multiplex are getting the rarely proffered guarantee that these actors really know what they’re doing. They’ve proven their stamina, their voices, and their willingness to take live chances.
The only thing that could improve this experience would be if the play itself were good. And, believe it or not, it’s not at all bad.
To make matters worse, the play is composed mostly of conversations with and speeches to the audience, monologue-style narration of the sort that’s usually an uncomfortable substitute for action and interaction. (Scenes about the fraternizing with prostitutes, frequent gunplay, and even cannibalism that define Joey and Denny’s world almost certainly wouldn’t be boring.) Scott Pask’s set even highlights this: It’s a shadowy room with little more than two chairs and two lamps hanging overhead (Hugh Vanstone did the lighting), the stifling picture of a police interrogation chamber. Crowley’s staging, which includes a few elements perhaps too dreamlike to accentuate the harder-edged reality of the script, doesn’t do much to dissuade you of the notion you’re seeing a he-said-he-said romp, a good-cop-bad-cop routine writ large but too small to tell you much about Joey and Denny, Craig and Jackman, or especially yourself.
What Huff does, and what makes this an ideal vehicle for high-caliber stars, is allow plenty of room for uncertainty within the “I did this, I did that” limits of the form. The guys may speak mostly to us, but they’re working separately, weaving threads that only occasionally overlap. One might utter a statement the other needs to correct, openly or surreptitiously; a key detail or fact that one leaves out may not be an accident, as the other proves later. You believe, from the first moment to the last, that these men have lived their lives intertwined, and Huff uses that to fuel his story, showing how their friendship is challenged, bent, broken, and repaired, almost entirely within the natural subtext of two guy’s guys who aren’t exactly apt to reveal their deepest feelings. So even though Joey and Denny tell us everything they do, there are an unusual number of gaps when it comes to explaining why.
That’s where adventurous actors with think-on-their-feet stage experience become essential, and Jackman and Craig are able to scribble on this blank slate of a play right to the edges, in ways uniquely theirs. The betrayed exasperation Jackman brings to Denny’s chastising the world’s lack of logic as walls start collapsing around him could come from no one else: part whine, part commandment, all machismo that’s more blood oath than affect but more ineffectual than commanding. Craig is utterly convincing as both the wispy Joey who needs Denny to fight his battles and the more confident man who’s unafraid to take what he wants, even if he shouldn’t have it - his overflow of gentleness and absence of malice prevent you from detesting behavior that, by the end of the play, has become highly questionable.
But Jackman and Craig know when to leave space blank, as well - they present Denny and Joey as empty vessels that only the other can fill, which opens so many doors for the triumphs and tragedies the play documents over the course of one rainy summer. And they keep you guessing throughout. Craig plays the secretly opportunistic Joey as completely without guile; Jackman imbues Denny with a good-natured humor and reluctant charm, when the character seems to demand off-putting brusqueness and even violence in the way he approaches his daily affairs. These choices go against expectations, but they work because they help you understand both men better. Violating the script’s apparently stated precepts in this way is not a beginner’s choice, and it requires real chops to pull off when the material itself is less than absolutely scintillating.
They do throughout exactly what great actors must: not only make the roles their own, but make it difficult to imagine they could (or should) be played any other way. Theirs is a terrific pairing, one that makes a satisfying but forgettable script into something memorable and electrifying for reasons that go well beyond merely seeing big movie actors onstage. It’s great talent using good material to show the amazing things they’re capable of when they’re allowed to let loose. Producers and audiences everywhere - assuming they can get tickets - should look at A Steady Rain as the ultimate example of the magic that smart star power - and smart star casting - can work.