Chicago is a New York star in 'A Steady Rain' and more new shows
NEW YORK — You can go to Chicago these days without leaving Manhattan. Hey, you can hang out with Chicago cops without even leaving 45th Street between Broadway and Eighth Avenue.
Chicago has been a force in New York theater for years, of course. But openings last week have surely turned a trend into some kind of phenomenon.
In "A Steady Rain" at the Schoenfeld Theatre, international superstars Hugh Jackman and Daniel Craig opened Tuesday as morally challenged cops in a 90-minute set of overlapping monologues by a heretofore obscure Chicago playwright named Keith Huff.
Directly across the street at the Music Box, a couple more of that city's police force are supporting characters in "Superior Donuts," Tracy Letts' first work since the Chicago-based playwright won every prize except Miss America for his massive melodrama, "August: Osage County." The smaller new play, which opened Thursday, is a serious comedy set in a doughnut shop in a gentrification-resistant Chicago neighborhood called Uptown and, like Letts' Pulitzer winner, has been transferred intact from the city's prime hyper-achievers, the Steppenwolf Theatre Company.
Meanwhile, "Two Unrelated Plays by David Mamet" opened Wednesday at the Atlantic Theater Company, the Chelsea playhouse that Chicago's most famous playwright cofounded with his buddy William H. Macy in 1985. There aren't any cops in either piece — a scathing, tiny satire of politically correct speech called "School" and a lame extended spoof about a bedraggled homosexual theater troupe in ancient Rome called "Keep Your Pantheon."
What the hopeless "Pantheon" does have, besides unbendingly game performances by Brian Murray and John Pankow, is the unexpected cameo appearance of two lesser-known stars from the early heyday of the Chicago theater movement in the '70s. What a treat. There is Jack Wallace (on Broadway in the 1984 premiere of Mamet's "Glengarry Glen Ross") as the old bum and dildo peddler, and J.J. Johnston (the original Donny, to Macy's Bobby, in "American Buffalo" in 1975) as Titus, the Roman jailer.
For someone raised in Chicago, a weekend at these three plays felt like going back to the old neighborhood. Wallace and Johnston, unlike Jackman from Australia and Craig from England, don't have to learn a conscientious Chicago accent — which, incidentally, they manage surprisingly well.
The tough-talking characters in "A Steady Rain" and "Superior Donuts" may sound like Mamet ripoffs. To my ear, however, Huff and Letts don't write people who talk like Mamet. They write people who talk like Chicagoans.
I like to joke that I left America to work in New York in 1980. Before then, I used to think the characters in Neil Simon plays and in decades of other popular work were funny-talking people who existed only in plays. No kidding. It wasn't until I moved here that I realized these people were actually New Yorkers, created by playwrights, mostly Jewish, raised in Brooklyn and the Bronx.
I also grew up hearing that, unlike other modern American cities, Chicago was a city of neighborhoods. It wasn't until years later that I realized this salt-of-the-earth boast by (the first) Mayor Daley really meant it was segregated.
Much has evolved and been beautified in Chicago, where you can no longer identify its parts so easily by ethnicity or race. But the primal power of the neighborhoods can still be heard through the local color in both "A Steady Rain" and "Donuts." It must mean little to general audiences when Jackman (as the hotheaded Italian cop) rushes his bleeding child to Masonic Hospital or when Craig (the quietly festering Irishman) finds his troubled partner at the Dan Ryan overpass. One doesn't have to be able to picture the places, however, to recognize the authenticity.
Similarly, you don't have to know that Chicago's Polish population was once second only to Warsaw's to understand the resonance of reveries by Michael McKean as Arthur Przybyszewski, the aging '60s draft dodger trying to run the family doughnut shop on the tough, sad Uptown streets. He remembers Riverview, a long-gone amusement park we all used to beg our parents to visit in the summers, and calls soda "pop."
I'd prefer not to have to observe that, out of 22 characters in the three plays, there are only two women (a cop and a homeless woman in "Donuts"), and these are tangential. That sense of maleness has always been dominant in Mamet's street-tough poetic style. It remains to be seen whether women get a fair deal in "Race," the new Mamet drama he opens on Broadway in December with James Spader, David Alan Grier, Richard Thomas and Kerry Washington. Certainly the female in "Oleanna," Mamet's sexual-power duet, didn't have a half-share in the argument in the 1992 original, though the battle is said to have been evened out in the revival starring Bill Pullman and Julia Stiles that opens Sunday.
It used to be said Chicago theater thrived because the city has no movie or TV industries to lure away talent, that people simply did plays because they wanted to do plays. But actors — including William Petersen and David Schwimmer — keep coming back.
It is almost impossible to imagine, but, not so long ago, transfers from Chicago theater were trashed and burned in New York. When a couple of unknowns named Gary Sinise and John Malkovich brought Sam Shepard's "True West" to New York in 1983, the program never mentioned they were from Chicago or from a company called Steppenwolf. These days, new unknown storefronts — not just Steppenwolf and the Goodman Theatre — are sending their hits to New York. And when Laurie Metcalf stars in David Cromer's revival of Simon's "Brighton Beach Memoirs" and "Broadway Bound" this fall, both actress and director will be proudly identified as from Chicago. This is still news.