Arresting cop drama keeps Steady in Marin

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Kevin Rolston (left) is Joey and Khris Lewin is Denny, two talkative Chicago cops on a downward spiral in the West Coast premiere of Keith Huff’s A Steady Rain at Marin Theatre Company. Photos by Ed Smith


I can’t imagine what it was like to see Keith Huff‘s A Steady Rain when it was on Broadway almost three years ago starring Hugh Jackman and Daniel Craig as two Chicago cops navigating a tricky moral and ethical path through their demanding jobs. Was it possible to say anything but the two mega-watt movie stars flattening vowels to the best of their pretend Midwestern abilities? Was Huff’s taut two-man play even visible underneath the star power?

The answer is: probably not. And that’s OK. The play, as seen in its West Coast premiere at Marin Theatre Company, is an engaging, sturdily built vehicle to showcase two contrasting actors. The one playing Denny gets to be all Italian-American bravado and veer in the audience’s collective mind from being the bad cop to maybe being the good cop and back to being bad cop. Denny has a volatile temper that flares as often as his compassion and willingness to be a hero. He’s a proud family man, but his badge-bolstered ego and his “I’ll do it all myself” pride make him dangerous and extremely vulnerable.

The actor playing Joey gets a richer role. He’s Denny’s best friend since kindergarten (and has received his share of beatings from Denny since then as well), and he’s never really emerged from the shadow of his buddy. They’ve been patrol partners with the Chicago police force for years, and Joey, through his battles with the bottle, is the one who begins noticing that their casual racist remarks (especially Denny’s) could get them into real trouble. When Joey reminds Denny to watch his mouth during an arrest of drug-toting gang bangers (or “gang-banging ethno-shit,” as Denny puts it), Denny dismisses Joey as a “PC fly boy” and says the thugs should “start tolerating my intolerance.”

For Denny, being PC, having to watch his mouth or do things according to procedure “leech the testosterone out of the law.”

That’s a telling attitude and one that gets Denny and Joey into some deep, deep trouble.

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Huff’s play is a little like one of those donuts cops are supposed to like so much – it’s a tasty guilty pleasure that seems filling at the time but leaves you wanting more. The general feel of the play evokes a B movie cop thriller, but Huff has tweaked it and made it theatrical by turning the screenplay outline into a play where the cops describe the action scenes. A Steady Rain has explosions and car chases and bloody combat, drugs, whores and a famous cannibal/serial killer. But all we see are two guys – one in a suite (Joey) and one in casual dress (Denny) – doing an awful lot of talking.

The difference in complexity of the characters shows in the actors’ performances. Khris Lewin exudes dangerously slick charm as Denny, while Kevin Rolston digs deep and gives us a conflicted, slowly evolving Joey. Playwright Huff has talked about wanting audiences to make up their own minds about which is the good cop and which the bad. He clearly enjoys toying with the audience as he reveals unappealing aspects of both men, neither of whom is a saint or even a scrupulous cop.

I didn’t have any trouble deciding where my loyalty lay. Denny inflicted a few too many acts of violence on his own family (wife and young son) for me to give him any benefit of any doubt. I also felt Lewin’s performance was all surface and didn’t give Denny enough emotional heft.

Director Meredith McDonough faces the challenge of having two guys talking mainly to the audience (occasionally to each other) as they stand or sit in chairs. It’s not a terribly dynamic stage, but McDonough keeps the pace up and creates the kind of tension that makes audiences gasp or otherwise make noises when certain plot details are revealed.

Speaking of plot details, there’s one involving a very bad call the officers make one rainy night when out on patrol. There’s a naked, weeping Vietnamese boy (maybe 13 or 14) making a commotion in a bad neighborhood. The cops can’t understand the hysterical boy, so when the boy’s “uncle” shows up – described as blond and surfer-like – the surrender the boy into his custody. I know the cops can’t be bothered because it’s integral to the plot (and something like this really did happen in Milwaukee), but why doesn’t anyone ask the cops what the hell they were thinking giving a Vietnamese boy who doesn’t speak English and is clearly distraught to a man who is so obviously not his uncle?

This whole episode become important in the downward spiral of the two cops, but there’s so much other stuff happening with prostitutes who keep babies in dresser drawers, seriously injured children, revenge violence and an illicit love affair that the cannibal killer really feels like Huff is larding it on. I guess that’s part of the fun, but it also makes A Steady Rain feel less like a serious drama and more like the aforementioned chocolate-covered old-fashioned donut.

A special note: on the night I saw A Steady Rain, Marin Theatre Company was experiencing some electrical problems. About 10 minutes into the play, the house lights came on, and shortly after that, the stage manager held the actors and explained there were technical difficulties being addressed. The actors joshed with the audience for a bit, then we sort of all agreed that we’d carry on with the house lights on “half.” It must have been so difficult for the actors to lose themselves in the play with all our shiny audience faces completely visible to them every moment. Rolston and Lewin were complete pros and handled it beautifully.

[bonus video]
A sneak peek at A Steady Rain from Marin Theatre Company:

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Keith Huff’s A Steady Rain continues through Feb. 26 at Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Ave., Mill Valley. Tickets are $20-$55. Call 415-388-5208. or visit www.marintheatre.org.

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