March 11, 2008

Storm clouds brew behind the badge

Blindfold half the audience of A Steady Rain, and its reaction to the play probably wouldn’t be too different from that of the other half. Other than the trembling lower lip of Joey (Peter DeFaria) as he relates each new tragedy and the foot-long string of drool that hangs from the mouth of Denny (Randy Steinmeyer) in one of his most far-gone scenes, a blind audience wouldn’t miss much.

A Steady Rain is one of those increasingly rare plays that runs almost completely on storytelling, not spectacle. Thanks to playwright Keith Huff’s sometimes painfully vivid story, Denny and Joey’s back-and-forth monologues pack more than enough punch to carry this no-frills drama. That’s probably why A Steady Rain is up for a second Chicago run at a new home, the Royal George Theatre.

The Royal George is a slightly ghetto venue—the audience sits in rows of incoherently numbered chairs, some joined to planks of wood with electrical tape to keep them in place. The theater’s low-key atmosphere seems to mirror the play’s meager set-up. The set consists solely of a room with a table and two chairs. The only props, two paper coffee cups, seem almost lavish in their inclusion.

Against this sparse backdrop, Denny and Joey tell the story of their lives behind the badge during one exceptionally rainy Chicago summer. The pair takes the “good cop, bad cop” trope to its logical extent: Denny, a wisecracking tough guy with an ever-worsening mean streak, plays foil to the more sensitive Joey, a recovering alcoholic who has served alternately as Denny’s punching bag and charity case “since kinnygarten.” As a mix of bad luck, worse decisions, and an unraveling mental state sends Denny over the edge, Joey learns to man up and stop accommodating his partner’s inexcusable behavior.

Like any good pair of foils, Denny and Joey are eerily similar in spite of their opposite personalities. Though Joey prefers terms like “effing” and “Latino and African-American gentlemen” over Denny’s “fucking” and “gangbanging ethno-shit,” his capacity for anger is just as real. When a brick through Denny’s front window wreaks irreparable brain damage on his only child, Denny’s bloody, vindictive rampage through the city is made even scarier by the subtle hints that soft-hearted Joey could fall prey to the same mentality.

Though the play is a two-man show, its cast of characters is rich. There’s Willy, the street kid who throws a brick through Denny’s car window because his older brother promised him a puppy for the crime. There’s Rhonda, a hooker with “leaky tits,” as Denny so tactfully puts it, who leaves her baby at home in a sock drawer when she goes out. And then there’s the naked, panic-stricken Vietnamese boy who puts his arms around a dumbfounded Denny and refuses to let go. The boy, in spite of receiving mention in only a few scenes, is perhaps the most memorable detail in the play. It’s a testament to Huff’s storytelling abilities that these characters, only described by Denny and Joey, feel as real as the men on stage.

Huff’s storytelling has a few weak points. We’re hit over the head pretty hard with rain as a metaphor for hardship and squalor. He also makes DeFaria’s job perhaps unnecessarily difficult, saddling Joey’s character with the task of relating a long chain of progressively more dire misfortunes.

A Steady Rain ultimately has a tragic air, but wisecracks with a gruff, Chicago-cop sensibility abound. Huff endears the audience to Denny in the first scene by playing up his pride at having “a Nielsen family.” We get a feel for Joey’s pathetic, alcoholic past when Denny tells him, “You were feeding yourself sterno for breakfast.”

But there’s no guarantee that even the biggest black comedy fan would crack a smile at A Steady Rain, especially for audience members who don’t particularly prefer their plot arcs in the shape of downward spirals. At the very least, the jokes keep the play merely tragic—not unbearably dismal.