The two-man acting showcase “A Steady Rain,” on B Street Theatre’s B3 stage, offers a live version of HBO’s “True Detective.” Sort of.
“Detective” and “Rain” focus on pairs of cops. Each pair consists of a self-proclaimed family man who cheats on his wife and a heavy drinker who is single and covets the partner’s wife. In both instances, the cops are under suspicion by their own department and recall controversial events in flashback.
There are some key differences. “Rain’s” family man, Denny (Kurt Johnson), and his fellow Chicago cop Joey (David Pierini), aren’t technically detectives. They would be, as the bigoted Denny explains, but reverse racism keeps down white men and promotes minorities.
As Denny’s remarks indicate, no one in “Rain” is brilliant like Matthew McConaughey in “Detective.” Not even close. Nor is playwright Keith Huff’s bleak tale of police corruption, prostitutes, a pimp and a puppy (don’t ask) written as well as the cable show. But “Rain,” staged on Broadway in 2009 with Hugh Jackman as Denny and Daniel Craig as Joey, is addictive high drama, and the B3 production is nearly as compelling as “Detective.”
Dialogue-rich and virtually action-free, “Rain” renders its flashback moments vividly without the benefit of watching them played out onstage, or seeing characters besides Denny and Joey. The audience sees only two men, looking at the audience more than each other, telling stories. This approach results in an intimate theatrical experience in which audience imagination is vital.
Director Lyndsay Burch uses actor placement to impart certain sentiments on the small B3 stage. Putting Johnson under or near a hanging interrogation-room light makes him look dead-eyed – even as Denny recalls supposedly happy moments.
There is little movement on stage, and no change of scenery. Everything happens in an interrogation room that holds a file cabinet and cardboard boxes streaked with black marks, as if the room survived a flood or fire. (Or perhaps set designer Samantha Reno wants to signify hell. Denny is wearing red.)
Johnson and Pierini, handling reams of dialogue with ease, paint a full picture through words. It’s so complete that one is tempted to issue warnings about the play’s “graphic” content. But it’s all words, if often disturbing and/or profane ones.
You can picture Connie – Denny’s wife and Joey’s dream woman – and Rhonda, a hooker for whom Denny carries a torch. In my mind, Connie wears glasses and Rhonda a halter dress, though neither is described that way in the dialogue.
The lovestruck yet still heinous Denny hassles Rhonda’s pimp, shakes down other prostitutes for money and smacks around his wife, all why decrying the sickos he sees on patrol.
Denny talks so much that he seems to think power comes from moving one’s lips. Maybe it does, because he somehow talked Connie, a nice girl (it’s the glasses), into marrying him. The mild Joey has been in Denny’s sway since they were childhood pals. As Joey recalls to the audience, Denny used to beat him up daily. Joey took it, because he wanted Denny, the alpha, as a friend.
But when Denny’s enemy-making behavior on the beat leads to Denny’s house being shot up, his son being injured and police officials sniffing around, sure-things Connie and Joey aren’t so sure anymore.
Denny always treated his partner as less than him because he did not have a family. Pierini shows how Joey internalized this assessment, holding himself with little confidence at play’s start, delivering Joey’s dialogue about his own life almost as an aside. The main event always was Denny – Denny’s family, his vices, his reaction to Joey’s drinking problem.
But when Denny shows he’s fallible, and Connie seems in reach for Joey, Pierini stands a little straighter, his voice growing louder. But the posture seems more compensatory than confident. Denny is a rat, but Joey would be a rat to pursue Denny’s wife instead of showing some chutzpah and finding his own. Pierini’s performance suggests Joey knows this.
Johnson gives Denny an air of nervous exhaustion that reflects how the cop is burning the candle at both ends (fire metaphors just spring up with Denny). It’s tough protecting Rhonda while also feeling the pressure of being a family man and the burden of a partner who has insisted, for most of their lives, that Denny be in charge. You can feel the stress coming off Johnson in waves.
But instead of quitting Connie, Rhonda or the force, this devil with a God complex takes more on, trying to become king of the criminal streets. But if “True Detective,” “Law & Order” and “Barney Miller” taught us anything, it’s that the streets will eat you alive, buddy.
Call The Bee’s Carla Meyer, (916) 321-1118. Follow her on Twitter @CarlaMeyerSB.