NEW YORK -- Hugh Jackman is back on Broadway, which is good news, and Daniel Craig is making his Broadway debut, which is even better. But the conjunction of the Aussie and the Brit on a Broadway stage seems even more important than their specific vehicle, "A Steady Rain," a dark two-hander by Keith Huff.
Who knew? Craig, the Brit famous as the latest cinematic James Bond, has some premium London stage credits (Old Vic, National Theatre, Royal Court) but is a welcome discovery on the American stage. Jackman, bizarrely famous as Wolverine in the "X-Men" franchise, already won Broadway hearts as a triple-threat in "The Boy From Oz" and a skilled and charming host of the Tony Awards.
So here they are, improbably enough, playing Chicago cops! They light up the stage with talent as much as fame, and they even do pretty well by the accent, Craig somewhat better than Jackman. But the result is still a mixed bag, mainly because of the modest attractions of a surprisingly static if harrowing play.
Directed by John Crowley, its mode is parallel, overlapping and occasionally interwoven monologues. Starting out as a tale of their relationship, with humorous sidelights, it develops into a violent, horrific story.
Joey and Denny have been friends since boyhood. Now beat cop partners, they gripe at not having made detective. Denny (Jackman) is the flashy, charismatic one with a family; Joey (Craig) is the melancholy loner who soaks up the glow of his pal. The play's greatest interest lies in the crevices and inconsistencies between their two versions of their story. Joey's is ultimately the one we buy, because he knows himself better.
For all the rawness of the dramatic world (and its language), this is ultimately a drama of character. Denny is not just the flashy, noisy, bigoted extrovert he seems -- he also has darker, more destructive drives, a rogue cop writ large. But while Joey dutifully sublimates his own desires, he can't deny them entirely. The result is festering conflict between the two, but not until the dark, scary world of Chicago lowlifes has exploded around them in a baroque crescendo.
All this may be in a day's work for Bond and Wolverine, but it's pretty raw stuff on the stage, even distanced by being dramatized only in narrative. In the midst of this 90-minute story, Craig's Joey is perfectly believable, the small man who gradually grows angles and depth. Jackman has the harder job, perhaps especially because it's hard for us to see past his charisma to Denny's mania. Craig gets lost in his character; Jackman not so much.
For me, the bottom line is that, no matter how compelling the story and potent the acting, the tragedy lacks emotional payoff.
Playwright Huff, it hardly needs to be said, is a Chicagoan. He has a good number of plays to his credit, but he isn't widely known. As if nervous about this, his ample Playbill bio lists some eight or nine awards and twice that many institutional credits before getting around to actually naming some of the plays.
I'm sorry not to know any of them. Huff propels us into the world of the drama. He knows his milieu and writes taut, vivid language. But "Steady Rain" is not so remarkable a play as it is remarkable that it's on Broadway, which doesn't generally welcome such grim, static drama. Its appearance there is entirely due to the conjunction of its two stars. They are well worth a showcase, even one that's only partially satisfying.
"Steady Rain" is at the Schoenfeld Theatre, 236 W. 45th St.; tickets at 1-800-872-8997. The play joins three musicals on the Post-Gazette's fall ShowPlane to Broadway, Nov. 18-22; for full information, call 412-441-3131.
Senior theater critic Christopher Rawson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .