Two cops, one beat; two sides, one story

An Interview with Playwright Keith Huff

Given the gritty detail that Keith Huff writes into A Steady Rain’s drenched story of two morally questionable Chicago police officers, it is no surprise to learn he is from that city and knows its character intimately. For years, Huff worked to some success in Chicago’s storefront theaters, but his playwriting career never really launched. That all changed with the 2007 premiere production of A Steady Rain.

After workshops and a small production did extremely well, the play transferred to a sold-out commercial run in Chicago and, less than two years later, opened on Broadway with a cast featuring two of Hollywood’s biggest stars – Hugh Jackman and Daniel Craig. From the beginning, the wild success of the show is rooted in the depth of detail, complexity of character and care with which Huff wrote this humid, unrelenting story into life. In an interview with dramaturg Margot Melcon just before MTC’s rehearsals began, playwright Keith Huff discussed the story told by Denny and Joey in A Steady Rain.

Margot Melcon: What was your inspiration when writing A Steady Rain?
Keith Huff: My father-in-law was a police commander in Chicago and a dear, dear friend. He told me countless stories of the moral quandaries faced by Chicago cops. I wanted to tell some of these stories on stage so I fictionalized an incident similar to one I’d read about in the New York Times about two policemen in Milwaukee who were in court fighting to get their jobs back. They had been discharged from service for making a wrong decision when investigating a call, which led to an unspeakably brutal and senseless crime. How odd, though, to see two cops essentially on trial before the perpetrator of the actual crime himself made it to court. So I set the play in Chicago and the structure is essentially the two men on trial, compelled to tell us their stories because they have to justify the questionable choices they made. As I had them justify those choices, I started to think about the other choices they had to make in their lives with regard to family, friends, career. The story just spun out from there.

Do you think our society has realistic expectations of police officers and their sense of right and wrong?
Not really, no. I think we have the same unrealistic expectations of police officers that we have for doctors – we expect them never to make a mistake. We create laws to establish order, laws we need because people, when left on their own, are, arguably, lawless. For better or worse, we employ people to enforce the law, individuals who have the same flaws and failings we all have. Not an easy job.

Police officers are put in very extreme situations, expected to put themselves on the line, and if anything goes wrong the scrutiny is intense because the stakes are so high.
I imagine everyone can remember being caught doing something wrong, a parent asking, ‘What did you do?’ and making up a story to get yourself off the hook. It’s childish behavior. Unfortunately, instead of growing out of it as adults, it seems to have become endemic to our culture. People, sadly, have less regard for the truth and more regard for controlling the narrative. This is particularly true in American politics.

The idea of truth and subjectivity is really interesting. Do you have a sense from having watched audiences watch the play whether they take sides?
Inevitably, halfway through the play, people are certain Denny is the bad cop. Then Joey and Denny tell two equally plausible versions of the same story. Someone is lying. This is when audience members have to take sides. But really there’s nothing in the play that tips it and says that Denny’s version is true or Joey’s version is true. They could both be lying. From a philosophical standpoint, that plurality of narrative and the way that two versions of the truth can coexist in the world we live in seems a really intriguing thing for us to wrestle with in the modern day. When there is a plurality of truth I think we have to question the nature of truth itself. Are we making it up as we go along? And, if we are, it’s tremendously liberating but there is a great responsibility there. I don’t really think of myself as a moralistic writer, but I think when I articulate that argument, there is a moral edge to it.

Neither one of these guys is 100-percent good or 100-percent bad. It’s interesting to see how they play along that continuum throughout the course of the play.
There’s a real solid argument to make that Denny is the hero. For Denny, there are at least half a dozen instances where he helped someone or saved someone and his actions are heroic. For Joey, there are probably half a dozen instances where he could have stopped the downward slide of Denny and chose to do nothing. Because he did nothing, he precipitated it. Joey says at the end – I don’t want to call it a tragic realization because we talk about his arc being essentially comic – he does say, I should have stopped him. That he’s aware of it makes him more culpable. And that he’s aware and articulates it at a place where he can now do nothing about it but will benefit from it is even, I think, more reprehensible and is going to be difficult for him to live with.

How was it to write the two very different character arcs of Denny and Joey into the same story?
This was actually the artistic challenge I set for myself in writing the play. Beckett made the dubious proclamation that pure tragedy is no longer possible in our modern world, not in the same way it was a viable and cathartic dramatic form for the Greeks. Just as pure tragedy is no longer a viable theatrical form for modern audiences, he argued, neither is pure comedy. I assume this has to do with modern day individualism, the loss of the spirit of being a part of a community that is greater than the sum of its individual members and the acknowledgement of the absurdities and brutalities of the human condition. The most authentic representation of the human condition a contemporary dramatist can achieve, again according to Beckett, is a synthesis of tragedy and comedy, which he called the grotesque. So, as a contemporary writer, I thought it would be a fascinating artistic challenge – and a unique theatrical experience for the audience – to chronicle a tragedy and a comedy simultaneously.
To do this, I drew a big X on a piece of paper: one line signifying the dramatic trajectory of Denny and the other of Joey. Denny starts at the top of his game and hits bottom. His character arc is essentially tragic. Joey starts at the bottom of his game and gets, just about, everything he wants (a comic character arc). Not only are a tragedy and a comedy chronicled simultaneously, but also they are causally linked. Every move Denny makes down his trajectory is caused by an upward movement on Joey’s trajectory and vice versa. In other words, one man’s tragedy is another man’s comedy. That’s the formal structure. I think it makes the experience quite unique.

Why did you write the play in monologue rather than conversation?
Economy, primarily. I wanted to tell a big story, but getting theaters to produce large plays is extraordinarily difficult. I wanted to write a play that could tackle spectacle imaginatively without spending thousands and thousands on scenery to create plastic representations of things we can easily and readily imagine.

Is there a reason why Chicago felt right for this story?
I’ve lived in Chicago most of my life. I like to think I know my way around. I really enjoy the music of how cops talk in Chicago, how people in Chicago talk. I know the city well. I wanted people to be viscerally engaged in the storytelling, to create pictures in their heads, to truly participate in the theatrical event. I believe that writing as specifically and as concretely as I can is the best way to get to the universal.

What are you most proud of about this play?
That every audience member has a unique experience at A Steady Rain. You cannot simply watch the play. You have to listen. Listen carefully. You have to weigh and consider every fact, judge the storytellers, make moral assessments. The two cops are not just telling you a story – they are vying for your allegiance. In this sense, the audience is judge and jury. You have to decide what you are told is true, and what is a lie. Above all, you have to participate. I’m especially proud of the fact that individuals who see the play, when they recount what they experienced, often tell me radically different things. That’s real theater.