None of it matters much, of course. What the public wants is to see stars; the material chosen to show them off is of secondary importance. If it doesn’t actively benumb you with boredom, and does give the public a sufficient chance to bask in their presence, other issues barely count. So the important parts of A Steady Rain are Daniel Craig and Hugh Jackman. Without them, Keith Huff’s play wouldn’t be much—would, in fact, hardly be a play at all. Narrated in alternating dollops by its two characters, from some cosmic limbo where the living and the dead can engage in cross-talk and occasionally deign to notice each other, it tells the mildly interesting, mildly sensationalistic story of two Chicago cops whose partnership suggests what might happen if Laurel and Hardy got in shape and took up law enforcement.
Craig and Jackman don’t look or sound much like Chicagoans—or cops—but, being magnetic and handsome, do very well for stuff like this, which requires only a tenuous brush at believability. As the script is mostly narration rather than playwriting, it demands only minimal acting of dramatic scenes. Under John Crowley’s direction, the two stars present the increasingly far-fetched tale with an amiable diffidence that lets them show you their acting ability, as each gets into his character’s moments of personal pain, while carefully keeping the sordid events at a distance. These two clean-cut, good-looking guys—who wouldn’t want to spend time with them, even though one’s supposed to be a near-psychopathic drughead thug and the other his ineffectual, booze-hazed enabler? The realities of a gangrenous leg, a kick to the jaw of a prone suspect, or a dead baby in a garbage bag are not dwelled upon, merely reported as data, added to the increasingly high pile-up of narrated events. The line that divides cop reality from crime-corn gets crossed constantly, with a few actual police-news moments dropped in for good measure, including a famous incident from the Jeffrey Dahmer case, moved south from Milwaukee for the occasion.
It doesn’t particularly add up to anything but a nice little shudder, for those able to snag tickets. Jackman, with his wonderful easy fluidity, shows once again that he’s a natural-born stage star; Craig, saddled with a less showy role and an English-prof toothbrush mustache, does lots of wild gesticulating before settling into his character and showing that he, too, has what the stage demands. One wouldn’t mind seeing either man in an actual play sometime.
The existence of stars, as a phenomenon, didn’t occur by accident: The actor’s body and voice (and—once we get past the mask phase of theater history—his face) have always been the basic elements on which theater is built. Far odder than the adoration of stars is the recent adoration of super-directors, arriving just when the roughly-150-year-old notion of the director as the primary force in theatrical creation has pretty much run its course. A general audience tendency toward conservatism has spared New York the worst indulgences of this peculiar late blooming, essentially a rearguard attempt to recapture, under the banner of deconstruction, the power and validity that the art of directing was beginning to lose as its practice degenerated into incoherence.
Directing began, in the mid 19th century, as a systematic attempt by the heads of acting troupes—figures like Charles Kean and the Duke of Saxe-Meiningen—to enhance the effect of the plays they produced. Enhancement slid inevitably toward interpretation, and then toward the notion that a directorial vision was always required to express the play’s substance, and, in time, to the emergence of director-creators who functioned as their own playwrights. Both groups, interpreters and creators, spawned some genuine visionaries, along with many imitators and fizzles.
Directorial primacy flourished in the shade of the modernist movement, always seeking new modes of expression. As modernism declined, and the quest for newness for its own sake became a destructive force, directing started to lose its artistic validity. Today, it’s mostly either back where it began, the work of skilled functionaries sympathetically trying to enhance a play’s effect, or off in some pointless cloud-cuckooland of its own, irrelevant to the values of play, actors, and audience alike. Only academic theorists clinging to dead bits of jargon, and misguided producers clinging to dead notions of directorial celebrity, give it credence.
Luc Bondy and Peter Sellars, two of the prominent figures of the now-bygone era in which directing became the main source of audience boredom, both unveiled New York productions the same week. Bondy’s staging of Puccini’s Tosca, his local debut, opened the Met season to a storm of boos; Sellars’s grudging four-hour trudge through Shakespeare’s Othello sent much of its audience streaming for the exit at intermission.
Bondy’s defenders claim that the Met’s stodgy audience simply wants Franco Zeffirelli’s “traditional” production back. But Zeffirelli’s production wasn’t traditional; it was Ziegfeldian, with the singers nearly lost in its lavishness. Bondy’s staging has one virtue, carefully detailed playing in the intimate scenes among the three main characters, which will inevitably vanish as other singers take on the roles. Against this, it offers an uninteresting, unhistorical drabness, a muddled sense of action, and bits of idiotic and irrelevant stage business for Scarpia. The result suggests an artist who cares nothing about Tosca merely earning a fee. Despite substitutions—Joseph Colaneri for an ailing James Levine in the pit, Carlo Guelfi singing Scarpia’s Act Two offstage right while a cold-ridden George Gagnidze mimed the role—the musical performance, especially Karita Mattila’s, was splendid; Bondy’s work didn’t measure up.
Sellars at least took Othello seriously; consequently, his leaden mess of a production showed how little his serious methodology can achieve. A meaningless set centered on a bank of video monitors; a glib transposition to contemporary life that vitiated the drama; a deaf ear to both the sense and the sound of the text; a cast ill-prepared and misguided, some trapped in absurd conflations of several roles. Even at that, John Ortiz, Liza Colon-Zayas, and Saidah Arrika Ekulona showed that, given a different director, they and Shakespeare might work well together.