NEW YORK — That roar swelling over Broadway these days is the sound of fans lined up behind police barricades at the stage door for "A Steady Rain." This is the play -- make that event -- that opened Tuesday at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, with Hugh Jackman (Wolverine of the "X-Men" franchise) and Daniel Craig (of the James Bond club) joining forces in a marquee match-up of movie stars, whose stage muscles turn out to be every bit as ripped as their adored physiques.
If city officials are paying attention, they might want to send over a few mounted officers to quash any pandemonium when these sex symbols head home after the show. On second thought, better call in the National Guard -- this A-list double-shot is beginning to draw a mob.
As it is, Jackman and Craig have to wait patiently for all the cat-calling to subside before they're allowed to utter a syllable of Keith Huff's drama. This duologue, recounted in not-always-polite buddy banter and monologues that occasionally veer into suspenseful goriness, tells the snowballing tale of a pair of Chicago cops whose lifelong friendship is tested when the pursuit of justice becomes harrowingly personal.
Now these fellows could charm the pants off half (if not three-quarters) of the audience just by reading the proverbial phone book. Obviously, the play here isn't the thing, and Huff lets his plot ride roughshod over his characters.
But under John Crowley's spare and precise direction, the actors earn their adulation, magnifying what's most gripping about Huff's writing even when the drama, stretched thin with bang-bang incident, becomes considerably less believable over time. And for those worried about authenticity, fear not: Although Jackman is from Australia and Craig is from England, they slip into the American reality of their characters as if it were a second skin.
Jackman, in the more flamboyant of the two roles, plays Denny, a beat cop with a politically incorrect mouth and an overwhelming desire to protect whoever and whatever belongs to him. He's an Italian American family man with a macho streak a mile wide, and he's proud of his wife and kids, his dog and, most especially, his big-screen TV.
Craig, donning a '70s-ish mustache and an apologetic demeanor that is the very opposite of his suave Bond persona, portrays Joey, Denny's partner, childhood friend and affectionate punching bag. An Irish American loner, Joey is trying to steer clear of the booze, an issue that Denny thinks is linked to his pal's solitary "nonstarter" life.
This self-styled "Starsky & Hutch" duo have been passed over for detective promotions for airing racist remarks in the locker room "about the apparent injustice of the unstated quota system." Denny isn't particularly good at censoring himself, and Joey, who has been virtually adopted into Denny's household as a means of keeping him sober, does what he can to raise his friend's sensitivity without getting too badly pummeled in the process.
"Hey, you got a problem with the bottle; I got a problem with my mouth," Denny tells Joey. "We're helping each other out, right?"
Jackman allows you to feel both the warmth and the tyranny of Denny's love. A taller presence than Craig, he takes up more stage space physically and theatrically, which is just how it should be, given the way his character swaggers like the king of his own limited universe.
Interestingly, the more Craig's Joey shrinks, the more he seems to be concealing valuable qualities that Denny conspicuously lacks. Perennially in the shadow of his strutting companion, Joey grows in stature with every hitch in Huff's short but overstuffed narrative.
As much a morality tale as a journey down mean inner-city streets, "A Steady Rain" tracks the increasingly grave missteps of a man who habitually puts himself above the law. The action starts skidding when Denny drives home a prostitute he thought might make a good match for Joey (two reforming acts for the price of one) and ends up, through a chain of out-of-control criminal events, jeopardizing what matters most to him.
The play, part of the author's Chicago cop trilogy, sometimes seems like an early Conor McPherson piece with its gritty depiction of wayward working stiffs and its garrulous direct-address style. The major difference, however, is that Huff guides his drama away from the revelations of fierce words and scabrous wit toward fairly conventional crime-drama melodramatics.
In an intimate theater, "A Steady Rain" probably seems larger than it is. But in a Broadway house, the play's smallness is unmistakable -- a vehicle for stars to shine in and not much more.