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Saturday, 21 January 2012 16:02

Decline and fall of 'A Steady Rain' at the Rep Studio

Written by Chuck Lavazzi
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repstl.org / Jerry Naunheim, Jr.
repstl.org / Jerry Naunheim, Jr.

The Rep’s production of Keith Huff’s drama “A Steady Rain” is a classic example of a less than satisfying script turned into compelling theatre by outstanding acting and direction.

In this two-man play told almost entirely in monologues and flashbacks, Michael James Reed (as Joey, a Chicago cop recovering from alcoholism) and Joey Collins (as his partner Denny, well along the road to perdition) are utterly believable and riveting. And a good thing, too, since Denny’s character is so repellent from the very beginning that his eventual destruction lacks the tragic impact it might otherwise have.

When we first meet them, in set designer Robert Mark Morgan’s realistically squalid police interview room, Joey and Denny appear almost cartoonish. Denny’s relentless bravado and (apparently) comic bigotry contrast with Joey’s calmer and more reasoned outlook. It quickly becomes obvious, however, that Denny has has more in common with the suspects he arrests than with the public he is supposed to “defend and protect”. He’s obsessively violent, morally corrupt, and wedded to a toxic “tough guy” image of masculinity. He thinks entirely in stereotypes and it warps his judgment.

He’s also terminally self-centered. Denny is the center of his own universe, the sole judge of who is right or wrong, who should live or die. Other human beings, including his own family, are merely extensions of his will. When a vengeful pimp shoots out the windows in Denny’s house and flying glass cuts his youngest son, Denny rages that it’s his blood that was spilled.

Joey has his problems as well. A recovering alcoholic pulled out of the bottle by Denny and his wife, Joey finds himself increasingly at odds with Denny’s contempt for police procedure and use of his badge to extract money from prostitutes and drug dealers (which Denny defends as “free enterprise”). And while Joey may be Denny’s life-long friend, he’s also Denny’s enabler, acting as a willing punching bag for his partner’s verbal and physical assaults. Fortunately Joey, unlike his partner, is capable of compassion for others, and this is what ultimately makes him redeemable. It also makes him a more interesting and complex character.

These guys are, in short, every mismatched “buddy movie” duo taken to the logical and destructive extreme. They’re a disaster waiting to happen.

The event that triggers that disaster is based on a real-life incident in which Milwaukee beat cops returned one of Jeffrey Dahmer’s victims to his custody and then failed to follow up on the incident. Mr. Huff’s fictionalized version is more streamlined, but the result is similar: Joey and Denny are suspended and the latter’s descent to destruction goes into high gear.

The slow-motion train wreck of Denny’s life could be (and very nearly is) tedious, as one self-inflicted wound after another piles up — so many, in fact, that it all starts to feel like overkill. What saves it, in my view, is Mr. Collins’s focused performance. He is always completely in the moment. His concentration is absolute.

The same is true of Michael James Reed’s Joey. He has the advantage of playing the more sympathetic character, of course, but that also means he must never be anything less than totally credible. It’s only a two-man play, after all, so if Joey hits any false notes the entire business is at risk. Mr. Reed is spot-on at every moment. When he finds redemption by learning to care for the family Joey has abandoned, it’s the one truly cathartic moment in an otherwise doggedly bleak story.

Director (and Rep Artistic Director) Steven Woolf makes smart use of Mr. Morgan’s claustrophobic set and provides enough motivated movement to prevent what is essentially a series of monologues from becoming dramatically static. Peter Sargent’s lighting design neatly delineates playing areas. In combination with Rusty Wandall’s sound (which includes the titular rain) it nicely suggests contrasting moods as well. Mr. Morgan’s set includes drab venetian blinds that, during scenes set in the city streets, open to reveal a garish neon Chicago skyline. It’s a darned nice touch.

So, can I recommend “A Steady Rain”? Tough call. At around one hour and forty-five minutes with no intermission, it becomes a bit of a slog towards the end. Denny’s character is too obnoxious and the pile of calamities is too high. It’s ultimately the theatrical equivalent of a natural disaster. Still, it’s a perfectly acted and produced one, and that, all by itself, might make it worthwhile for you. And the script, flaws and all, is nevertheless thought provoking and provides much fodder for post-show discussion.

“A Steady Rain” continues at the Rep Studio Theatre through February 5th. For more information, you may visit repstl.org, friend them on Facebook, follow @repstl on Twitter, or call 314-968-4925.

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