Even in his hometown of Chicago, Keith Huff was hardly a playwriting superstar. Though the author of about 50 plays, many of them produced at respected Second City theaters like Steppenwolf and Chicago Dramatists, he still needed a day job--editing for a medical website--to help support himself, his wife and their 8-year-old daughter. Yet now he's a Broadway hot ticket. True, he has a couple of big movie stars to thank--Daniel Craig and Hugh Jackman, who were somehow persuaded to star in his play A Steady Rain. But they're only helping affirm a hard truth for New York City's sometimes insular theater community: the Chicagoans are taking over.
Unless you're a musical or an import from London, you'd better have a Chicago accent to make it in the Big Apple this season. The second major play to open on Broadway this fall is another Chicago product: Superior Donuts, Tracy Letts' follow-up to August: Osage County, his multi-award-winning family drama that stormed Broadway nearly two years ago and is now on a national tour. Chicago theater's most celebrated export, David Mamet, will be represented on Broadway with two works this fall: a revival of his 1992 drama Oleanna and a new play, about black-white tensions at a law firm, titled Race. Meanwhile, hot Chicago director David Cromer--whose moving, teacup-size revival of Our Town is a megahit downtown--will tackle the work of that quintessential New York wiseacre, Neil Simon, directing revivals of his autobiographical plays Brighton Beach Memoirs and Broadway Bound.
Chicago, of course, has been a major force in American theater for some years. The Steppenwolf Theatre burst on the national scene in the 1980s, introducing plays by Mamet, Sam Shepard and others, popularizing a high-voltage performance style and spawning stars like John Malkovich and Gary Sinise. The city's biggest resident theater, the Goodman, has produced everything from major revivals of Eugene O'Neill and Arthur Miller to last year's Pulitzer Prize winner, Ruined by Lynn Nottage, while a growing roster of smaller off-Loop theaters have nurtured experimental works like 2007's critically acclaimed musical version of Elmer Rice's expressionist play The Adding Machine.
The play that attracted Craig and Jackman is a deceptively modest piece: a 90-minute two-hander in which the British and Australian actors play (flawlessly) a pair of Chicago cops who recount, in alternating monologues, a harrowing chain of events that tears their lifelong friendship apart. The material is familiar to streetwise fans of Hollywood crime films and TV cop shows--the prostitutes and lowlifes, shocking violence and moral compromises faced by cops who patrol the urban jungle. But Huff's vivid, intricately layered script--a mix of straight narration, interlaced commentary and re-created scenes--lifts it far above the usual clichés, both detaching us from the melodrama and imbuing it with the force of tragedy.