'A Steady Rain' at Walnut: Dark, brilliant two-cop drama

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Marc D. Donovan (left) and Keith J. Conallen in ‘A Steady Rain’ at the Walnut Street Theatre’s Independence Studio on 3.

In the gritty, violent world of A Steady Rain, cops extort hookers in the name of community, pimps skewer cops like shish kebabs, and children are cannibalized and set aflame. The only refuge from this bullet-riddled urban dystopia is the comfort of friendship and family.

Or so it initially appears in Keith Huff’s taut, intricately crafted 85-minute drama, set in a Chicago of highways, underpasses, and dark alleys where time is fluid and the rain threatens never to end. But as a brilliant production at the Walnut Street Theatre’s Independence Studio on 3 makes clear, home itself can be the site of the deepest and most painful betrayals.

The only characters in A Steady Rain are two cops, Denny (Marc D. Donovan) and Joey (Keith J. Conallen), lifelong friends, partners on the beat, and occasional rivals. Denny’s of Italian stock, married, with two sons – a man of instinct and impulse whose tendency is to strike first and reflect later or not at all. Joey, with Irish roots, remains single, prone to drowning his sorrows in the bottle, a half-step ahead of Denny when it comes to modern policing and political correctness. Neither seems destined for promotion.

Under Fran Prisco’s powerful and precise direction, the two men alternately relate and inhabit their stories, their retrospective, regretful narration framing the linked catastrophes that imperil their friendship. So vivid is their storytelling that an entire gallery of seedy, pathetic, and doomed characters seems to sprint or slither across the stage.

The audience, as though at a boxing match, is arrayed on two sides of a nearly bare playing space furnished with just two chairs. Thom Weaver designed the simple set and exemplary lighting, and Christopher Colucci’s sound design envelops us in the storm. Costume designer Jill Keys puts the more conformist Joey in a suit and the rougher Denny in jeans and a leather jacket.

As the action begins, Denny is exulting in his big-screen TV and other perks of family life, which Joey shares only as a constant visitor. But, as we learn when gunfire shatters the tranquillity of Denny’s home, it is impossible to keep the vicious outer world at bay.

The mounting chaos starts with a single infidelity. In one of his innumerable misjudgments, family man Denny angers a pimp by cavorting with a hooker he had invited to dinner to meet Joey. The original fix-up never had a chance: Joey is too enamored of Denny’s wife, Connie.

Huff’s otherwise accomplished play (which made it to Broadway in 2009 as a star vehicle for Hugh Jackman and Daniel Craig) is packed too full of incidents. As the narrative moves backward, then forward, the complicated structure makes the sequence of events challenging to follow.

At the heart of A Steady Rain are two unsteady men – flawed and floundering, but finally and inescapably sympathetic. Sparring across Huff’s grimly imagined cityscape, Donovan and Conallen give intense, emotionally fallible performances that demand to be seen.

THEATER REVIEW

A Steady Rain

  • Presented through March 25 by the Walnut Street Theatre’s Independence Studio on 3, 825 Walnut St. Tickets: $35-$40. Information: 215-574-3550 or walnutstreettheatre.org.