Wednesday, July 25, 2012

REVIEW: IT'S A DOWNPOUR - 'A Steady Rain' at Chicago Dramatists

I did not see “A Steady Rain” during its original run at Chicago Dramatists in 2007 or when it subsequently transfered to the Royal George Theatre. I even missed out on its hit Broadway engagement, made famous by a YouTube outburst from star Hugh Jackman over a ringing cellphone in the audience. So, Chicago Commericial Collective’s new remount of the initial Chicago Dramatists production was my first exposure to Keith Huff’s cop drama. Perhaps I walked into the theatre with unreasonably high expectations, having been irreversibly affected by the last five years of snowballing hype, but after seeing the play for myself, I must confide in you that the success “A Steady Rain” has endured simply baffles me. Outside of the ease of producibility – a simple single set, few cues, and only two actors – “A Steady Rain” is no more than a cliché teleplay that fails to thrill, drive or include anyone.

If you are at all familiar with Chicago Dramatists’ intimate theatre, then my assertion of “A Steady Rain”s inability to include its audience should throw you for a loop. After all, inclusion is inherent to the theatre’s small size, right? It should be, but these two actors, Randy Steinmeyer and Peter DeFaria, vigorously fight against it, portraying the rogue policemen in manner more akin to neanderthalic cartoon characters like Fred Flinstone and Homer Simpson  than any cop I've ever met. I understand that the popular perception of cops is that they are people who revel in theatricality and presentation – proud storytellers – and relish their masculinity. But the repetive  rythyms and choreographed pomp these actors impose upon their characters undermine both their manliness and their ability to tell  these stories honestly. Beneath the play's guise of structural simplicity is overarching artificiality.  

“A Steady Rain” is storytelling at its most literal. The narrative is presented through first-person monologues delivered by the two characters who never once speak to each other face-to-face over the play’s ninety minutes. Director Russ Tutterow stages the play without unnecessary frills, alternating the characters' movement from sitting to standing for long sections. Keeping their stories separate as though a part of a systematic interrogation is an intriguing frame, but a challenging one in which to build meaningful relationships. Huff's monologues do not capture natural or accurate human speech, riddling the text with lofty, inconsequential rain metaphors that jar the audience moreso than move them. Many sentences also end with half-hearted attempts at connection  like “You know what I mean?” But despite the efforts to engage, the stage still feels as if it's in another building altogether. 

I had a terribly difficult time following the wandering plot of the play, so packed with diversions and unnecessary detail that you need the physical script in hand to pick up all of the play's forgettable minutiae. The monologues are so monotonous and rapid that most subplots went right over my head. The central story concerns two longtime friends and cops, Joey and Denny, who, after finding a distraught Vietnamese boy on the street, return him to a man they believe to be his uncle, but, in actuality, is a serial killer. The strongest and most undeniably arresting - guffaw, guffaw - moment of the evening is a chase scene in the play's end, well driven by director Tutterow. Though presented as an action-packed psychological thriller, the play's conflict mostly erupts from dimwitted human errors and childish tempers, painting an unfair, contemptuous, and stereotypical image of the police. 

DeFaria, as Joey, does find moments of solemnity and groundedness admidst the often perplexing confusion of the narrative, but he also tends to sink into a sort of faked naturalism. That choreographed, mechanical feel might come from having performed the play so many times before, but it is the actor's responsibility to rediscover the play anew nightly. Steinmeyer, playing Denny, is physically and audibly loud, depending on painful-looking bodily tension and screaming to achieve a semblance of investment.  Both actors' experience comes off as predetermined, reaching their emotional peak before they even begin. So, by the time the play kicks in to legitimately high gear, the audience is exhausted from the overwrought exposition.  I found both actors at their most honest when they made occasional line flubs and broke the, otherwise mind-numbing, patterns established for them. It is only in those moments, that the play feels real. 

Chicago Commerical Collective is doing something absolutely tremendous for the theatre community in creating a profitable, commercial outlet for the astonishing productions of our many storefronts and not-for-profit theatres. Those productions nearly always have severely limited runs, and after a rave review from the Chicago Tribune, you might find yourself unable to get a seat. In that respect, the Chicago Commercial Collective is doing Chicagoans a terrific favor. But there have been many, many exhilarating productions onstage, this year alone, that haven’t lead the remarkable life that “A Steady Rain” has, and that are far worthier contributions to this cause than this rather unremarkable play.  I do hope that the Chicago Commercial Collective finds them. -Johnny Oleksinski

'A Steady Rain' runs at Chicago Dramatists through September 2.