Stage review

Barebones' finely acted 'A Steady Rain' pours out dark conflicts

What scope do we allow our guardians of order? How much do we want to know about what they do? And what does it do to them?

In staging "A Steady Rain," the company's name, barebones, stripped even of its initial capital, has never been more appropriate. The staging is stripped to its bones: just a desk, a couple of chairs, space-defining lights, a telling touch of sound, those evocative brick walls of the New Hazlett Theater and two men, talking sometimes in tandem but mostly in isolation.

Even the audience seats have been pushed forward for greater intimacy. No glamour, just a grim story, up close and intense.

'A Steady Rain'
Where: barebones productions at New Hazlett Theater, North Side.
When: Through March 2; Thursday-Saturday 8 p.m.; Sunday 2 p.m.
Tickets: $30 in advance, $35 at door, student discounts at the door; or 1-888-71-TICKET;

Quickly enough, that simple staging opens up to a larger story that rushes forward with grim fascination. Denny and Joey are two Chicago cops, combative friends since boyhood and now partners on dangerous patrol. As they tell their story, sometimes separately, sometimes in tandem, and then more and more in disjunction, we see there's a story beneath the story -- nothing bare-bones about that, at all.

But for all this plot, Keith Huff's play is really a drama of character. This isn't to downplay its intertwining stories about life-threatening events. But "Steady Rain" is really about the two men -- their long relationship, which we may come to see differently from either of them; their family lives, again not what they claim to think they are; the compromises they make on the job, justified or not by soul-eroding pressure; and ultimately the emotional balance between the two, whether it be love or betrayal.

You can see why it attracted the all-star pairing of Hugh Jackman and Daniel Craig, less than five years ago on Broadway. Here, it has enlisted two of Pittsburgh's best leading men, Patrick Jordan and David Whalen.

The result is electric but with the suppressed electricity of dark thunder and fitful lightning, as the two men tell their story, revealing more of themselves in the process than they really know or would admit.

I admire the extent to which each is unable to recognize his own culpability, but it may also suggest a shortcoming in the writing. Mostly, the play doesn't maintain a balance between the two stories it tells, private and public, too often shortchanging one or the other. It feels more like a TV play, without the richer texture we expect on stage.

But for the most part, that doesn't much matter, given the assurance with which the story is told by the playwright and these two charismatic actors.

We see a lot of Mr. Whalen on Pittsburgh stages, often with sunny, expansive assurance. I can't think when we've seen him so darkly conflicted. For all his apparent frankness, his Joey is hidden, even small. Joey is definitely the more complexly written of the two; it's not even clear how aware he is of his own betrayals.

Mr. Jordan has the flashier part (the one played by Mr. Jackman on Broadway), and he tackles it with characteristic verve. Initially, he's the one we want to like, he seems so open, even about his shortcomings. But Denny's ready smile also has a darkness. For all his confessional availability, he hides things from himself as much as from us. He eventually proves the more opaque and surprising of the two.

They are a striking pair.

The play's tautness obviously owes a good deal to Melissa Martin's no-frills direction, Andy Ostrowski's lights and Dave Bjornson's sound.

A lot happens in less than 90 minutes of playing time. The play moves so fast, why do they take an intermission? Perhaps to let the pressure ease, so it can build again. Build it does.

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