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Last Thursday night, eleven other people and I climbed two flights of stairs to a small space in a decommissioned water tower where we sat in less-than-comfortable folding chairs in order to watch a play about two middle-aged white men lamenting their unfortunate lives.
It was a truly excellent night of theater.
The play is "A Steady Rain," by Keith Huff, and the water tower is the Weehawken home of Hudson Theatre Works, an edgy new theater company with a taste for grit.
In 2009, "A Steady Rain" ran for three well-received months on Broadway, bolstered by Hollywood megastars Daniel Craig and Hugh Jackman and top-flight director John Crowley (the film "Brooklyn"). Although the creative team in Weehawken boasts far fewer bona fides, the production sacrifices no power. Director Frank Licato (Hudson's Artistic DIrector) guides arresting performances by Charles F. Wagner IV and Gregory Erbach with a steady hand.
The play's focus is two Chicago beat cops, Denny and Joey, neither of whom is happy to have been passed over repeatedly for promotion, a slight they are not reticent to blame on supposed departmental racial quotas. Their shared bitterness finds individual expression: for Joey it's the bottle; for Denny it's an over-valuing of his patriarchal, domestic role. Denny regularly invites bachelor Joey over for family dinner in an effort to keep him away from booze (and occasionally to try to set him up with some single woman). Denny and Joey are by no means happy or professionally fulfilled, but they are trudging along mostly because that's all they know how to do.
But then a bullet comes sailing through the window of Denny's home, destroying his new big-screen television and sending shards of glass into the bodies of all the family members he meant to protect. The men's steady, workaday lives go haywire.
Much of what makes this play so gripping is its constant juxtaposition between monologue and dramatization. Nearly all the play's action happens through narration; frequently the two performers speak directly to the audience, recounting the events that irreparably changed both their lives. Play and space work together ideally here—Hudson's stage is a perfectly unremarkable brick room adorned with only a small table and a few chairs - to invoke a small, confessional environment. The actors make eye contact with each of the audience members, suggesting that both Denny and Joey feel an urgent need to tell their story.
Licato's direction (aided in no small part by Jason Fok's subtle, evocative lighting) allows for this story to progress efficiently without being rushed. Most remarkable about Huff's script is the evolution both these characters undergo over the course of a short, 90-minute play, and Licato seems particularly attuned to this process.
The director, of course, has two terrific actors to work with. The grizzled and bitter urban beat cop is a very familiar character, but Wagner and Erbach do fine work individually and as a pair to breathe compelling life into Denny and Joey. Each actor succeeds in establishing the long history of these characters and their relationship, and then taking those characterizations into unexpected, frequently unsettling new terrain.
It is a shame that only a dozen audience members took in this riveting production on Thursday night. With work this strong, though, it should only be matter of time before others catch on to Hudson Theatre Works and the company will have to make room for many more folding chairs.
A Steady Rain
WHERE: Hudson Theatre Works, 4078 Park Avenue, Weehawken WHEN:through May 22 TICKETS: $20 available online.