It’s a dark and stormy night. Two Chicago beat cops, best friends since “kinnygarten,” sit under the glare of pendant lights in the interrogation room. Denny (Kevin Daugherty) is the hot head, the bully who takes no prisoners, might club you without warning, a definite alpha; Joey (Trevor B. Cone) is a bit more sensitive, one who likes procedure and playing by the book. Both use racial slurs and good-old-boy gritty language to bond with each other. They are partners in crime against crime, as they take scraps, shake down hookers, and nimbly skirt around the law they’re sworn to protect.
On the mean streets of the City with Big Shoulders, this is how you get things done. They both long to make Detective, but their on-the-job performance is riddled with questionable actions that worry the top brass. Somebody’s gonna snap.
If you’ve ever seen any of the 21 seasons of Law and Order and its numerous lucrative spin offs, or any crime-and-cop shows, you know this territory. Eat or be eaten. Play nice and you’ll lose your perp, or maybe your life. It’s a damned tough job, and one that will eat you alive if you let it. Playwright Keith Huff has either memorized all episodes of these crime dramas, or knows someone in the business, for his two-actor At Steady Rain, in a Dirt Dogs Theater Co. production, possesses all the melodrama and sensation of a blitz watching.
A family man, Denny still doesn’t have the will power to resist a fling with a local prostitute, which sets up Act One with subsequent deadly consequences with hints of the partners’ breakup and Denny’s psychological breakdown. He opens a large hole into which Joey can fall into the arms of Connie, Denny’s wife.
Act Two adapts a lurid chapter from Jeffrey Dahmer’s two-decade Minnesota killing spree, when the police inadvertently returned a young victim to the cannibalistic sadist. They got snookered by a glib Dahmer who claimed the naked boy was his lover and their night of love got out of hand. In fact, the Vietnamese boy had been drugged but miraculously escaped before Dahmer could do his worst. The two Milwaukee policemen, though suspicious of Dahmer, didn’t follow up, didn’t believe the stunned boy’s statement or take both of them in for questioning. They blithely handed the boy back into the waiting hands of the serial killer. It is assumed that the boy was dead one hour later. And dismembered after two.
While this sequence is grisly enough, it is just one of many infractions. The play’s appeal and power are much more personal. Joey is a recovered alcoholic, thanks to the ministrations of Denny, but it’s Denny who’s the tragic figure. He’s turned into pieces. His toxic masculinity is deadly – to his job, his family, his friendship with Joey – and he can’t seem to help himself. He’s too proud to ask for help. He must be strong for all of them, which means he’s got nothing left for himself. He falls into drugs and adultery with a thud. Daugherty bends this character with unabashed power, lurching from self-loathing to demonic male pride to a helpless heart cry. It’s a whirlwind performance.
In his quiet way, Cone matches him punch for punch. After all the partners’ mistakes, the top echelon wants a victim. The men, haunted by their deep long friendship, must decide who’s to take the blame for the boy’s death. That Joey is now entwined with Denny’s family is a Judas moment. Who’s he going to betray? Cone plays this with an Everyman’s compassion and a sudden rush of male protection. Joey may be out of his depth, but his love for Connie and her young family releases the goodness in him.
Huff’s play is an unabashed melodrama, on hard boil all the time. Superbly directed by Malinda L. Beckham who imaginatively keeps the tension ratcheted at ten, she has assembled a superlative team who overlay Rain with a most attractive film noir gloss. John Baker’s lighting slashes then envelopes the two lost souls; Jon Harvey’s sound design uses background rain as steady soundtrack under gun shots and sirens; but it’s Hescher’s musical soundtrack that is the wow factor.
A wondrous mix tape of Alex North’s jazzy film writing, a bit of Alfred Newman’s high violins for Fox, and snippets of Nelson Riddle’s lush ’50s arrangements for Sinatra; it’s the best score this season: atmospheric, incredible moving, absolute perfection. Who is he, and why hasn’t he been heard everywhere in Houston’s theater? I know his name is Cory Sinclair, an electronic musician, but what a revelation. Please sir, can I have some more?
A Steady Rain continues through March 5 at 8 pm Fridays and Saturdays; 7:30 p.m. Monday, February 28, and Thursdays; and 2 p.m. Sundays at Dirt Dogs Theater Co. at MATCH, 3400 Main. Masks and temperature check required. For more information, call 713-521-4533 or visit dirtdogstheatre.org. $25.