Jackman and Craig: Chicago Cops, Broadway Stars

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Joan Marcus / The Hartman Group / AP

Daniel Craig, right, and Hugh Jackman are shown in a scene from, A Steady Rain.

Few words strike more fear into my theatergoer's heart than these two: star vehicle. Usually they mean either that some old warhorse has been revived merely to service the career needs of a Hollywood ego, or that a flimsy new construction has been trundled onstage just to see how much of the scenery can be chewed up. A Steady Rain,a new Broadway play by Keith Huff starring Hugh Jackman and Daniel (James Bond) Craig, raises another warning flag the minute the lights go up. The two actors are the only people on stage, talking directly to the audience, and the play is little more than a pair of interwoven monologues.

Yet A Steady Rain turns out to be better than I had any right to expect — better, in fact, than any new American play on Broadway since August Osage County.Its two stars, an Australian and a Brit playing a pair of Chicago cops, are startlingly good: magnetic, commanding the stage (neither is a theater neophyte) yet totally absorbed in their characters, enhancing the play rather than bending it to their will.

Jackman has the flashier role: shirtsleeves rolled up, dark hair slicked back, he's a brash, bullying but well-meaning family man, who has become an expert at justifying the moral compromises demanded by the urban jungle where he works. Craig is the more sensitive of the pair, sporting a file-clerk mustache and drab gray suit, a reformed alcoholic caught between his loyalty and his scruples. They've got their American (if not quite Chicago) accents down pat, but they never preen, or call attention to the against-type casting. It's otherwise known as acting.

The play, in its understated way, is just as impressive. Huff has done two hard things. He has taken very familiar subject matter — the morally ambiguous life of cops working the mean streets — and made it seem fresh, authentic, brutally uncompromising yet not sensationalized. And he has done it using a device — actors talking directly to the audience — that is too often the resort of lazy playwrights who don't have the patience to write a fully fleshed-out play.

Huff's monologues come alive in a way most conventional plays don't. In recounting the horrific, but hardly implausible, series of events that push their friendship to the breaking point, the two cops narrate much of the action; occasionally comment indirectly on each other's recollections; sometimes re-create actual scenes together. Cumulatively, the effect is to drain the sometimes shocking events of any melodrama, to force us to see them with the same resigned, matter-of-fact detachment these characters do. The taut, 90-minute script builds with a tragic inevitability, yet with a coda of redemption that seems neither forced nor fake.

The play looks even better when placed alongside another Chicago-set play that has just opened on Broadway: Superior Donuts,Tracy Letts' so-so follow-up to his superb August Osage County.The story of an aging proprietor of an inner-city donut shop and the street kid who comes to work for him, it (like A Steady Rain) purports to have some street cred. But the thugs who menace the young employee (leaning on him to pay off gambling debts) look like B-movie retreads, the off-screen violence seems manufactured for effect, and the denouement is far more sentimental.

Huff's play has the advantage, of course, of Jackman and Craig. Yes, you can be cynical about the two movie hunks who are drawing lines of autograph seekers outside the theater every night — as well as the producers smart enough to turn an obscure 2006 play by a little-known Chicago playwright into a box-office bonanza. But once the actors step onstage, all that dissipates. This is one star vehicle that should provide a good ride for plenty of non-star actors to come.