A pair of Chicago beat cops sit in an empty room—somewhere in a precinct, judging by Tom Burch’s excellent set design—and tell of a rainy summer when all hell broke loose. The police story—of men felled by crimes they seek to thwart—is a well-worn genre, but rare is the play so purely intelligent and entertaining. Denny is the family man, an alpha male as politically incorrect as he is self-righteous. He is a teddy bear. He is an irrational prick. He is a stand-up guy about to fall to his knees. Playwright Keith Huff has an ear for the way men like this talk, the old-style Chicago sound, the bruising casualness (and hilarity) of their insults. You can’t fault Denny’s logic, which is what makes the character (cunningly played by Randy Steinmeyer) so much more than a cliché: “They want tolerance from me,” he says of the “gangbanging ethno-shit in the back seat” of the squad car, “they should start tolerating my intolerance.” His undoing is a hooker with a “heart-shaped pillow of a derrière” and an “upper frontal superstructure” of leaky tits, heavy with mother’s milk. This is language as music, and Steinmeyer’s face is a catalogue of emotions: seen-it-all indifference; squinty loquaciousness; something I’d call Chicago incredulous (surprised, but not); and, tucking his chin, a do-not-fuck-with-me glare that is intense and unyielding. The other cop is Joey, a sensitive loner from the neighborhood and Denny’s partner (Peter DeFaria, in a nicely shaded performance). He is a reformed “elbow-bender,” once so far gone down the bottle “you were spoon feedin’ yourself sterno for breakfast,” Denny says, and you can feel the shame in DeFaria’s entire demeanor. They’ve known each other “since kinnygarten.” Both have been passed over for promotions. They will test the boundaries of their friendship, protecting and betraying one another in a story that seems torn from the headlines it feels so true. As a night of theater, the production accomplishes what film can not—a narrative that requires your imagination as active participant. I have a very clear picture in my mind of the people and places and events described herein: Denny’s house, where his large-screen TV is splattered to pieces; the rainy night in an alley when a naked, sobbing Vietnamese teenager wrapped himself around Denny’s midsection; a prostitute’s bedroom, where her baby lies asleep in a sock drawer. Huff knows how to paint a picture, and his work here is vivid and special—you want to box up the script and take it home with you. He calls the play a “duologue,” a do-si-do of intersecting monologues traded off like hot potatoes, occasionally turning into full-fledged moments of dialogue. It is a clever storytelling technique. But what makes the show (under Russ Tutterow’s flawless direction for Chicago Dramatists) so addicting is Huff’s combination of Hollywood-style crime procedural (vaguely “Law & Order”-ish) and his insight into what makes people tick. Specifically, the shift in moral perspective that can take hold once you become a parent—sending you off the deep end if you’re not careful. (Nina Metz)
At Chicago Dramatists, 1105 W. Chicago, (312)633-0630. This production is now closed.