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There's something disconcerting about seeing a Brit and an Aussie plunge themselves deep into south-side Chicago accents for an hour and a half. But theatergoers had packed the house for the opportunity when I saw the Broadway production of A Steady Rain by local playwright Keith Huff.
Obviously, it wasn't Huff’s mediocre, brutal, chronologically challenged two-hander that drew the crowds, but the particular Brit and Aussie on the bill: mega-hunk movie stars Daniel Craig and Hugh Jackman, who play beat cops Denny and Joey. The two share the minimalist stage for the duration, each unfolding his version of the chain of career- and life-wrecking events that follow from Joey inviting a prostitute to a family dinner.
It was bold of Craig and Jackman to take on the play: with no intermission and no scene breaks but plenty of winding, five-page monologues, it might as well have been specially designed to mortify actors used to the luxury of multiple takes. Indeed, Jackman flubbed his lines a few times at the performance I saw and laughed out of character at one point, as if expecting a director to yell “cut.” The two aren’t allowed to look sexy, either. Craig is downright frumpy in his cheap suit and mustache, while Jackman plays a braying racist jackass.
And then there's that south-side accent.
“It was very hard,” says their dialect coach, Jess Platt. “We only had five weeks to work before the show opened, and I had to get some of the sounds of Chicago in there.”
Platt, who has worked with Jackman on film sets for over ten years, is trained as a speech pathologist and speaks with the faint remnant of a New York accent. "It’s very hard for a British person to pronounce a medial ‘r’ sound,” he says, offering the word “department” as an example. Platt also struggled to corral the addition of final “r” sounds to words like “idea.”
“Hugh had trouble with one line in particular. When he goes over to [the prostitute's] house the first time, he would always say, ‘The baby is glommed on to gazunger numba two,’ ”—mixing up the final sounds of the two words. “When I was watching at performances, he’d give me a sign with his finger after that line—point up if he got it right, or make a little ‘no no’ wag if he got it wrong.”
“We’re so used to movies, it’s the hardest thing we’ve ever done,” Platt confessed.
The accent they ended up with is more intense than nearly any I’ve heard in real life. Platt objected when I made a comparison to the Bears superfans, but it was apt—Craig and Jackman's pronunciations were as over-the-top as the narrative’s body count, and I became uncomfortably numb to both after a while.
It’s fantastic to see an off-Loop production make the jump to Broadway and bask in the glow of big stars. But the minstrelsy of Craig and Jackman portraying racist Chicago cops for an audience of well-larded tourists and smug New Yorkers set me on edge—especially since there's nothing about the story that locates it specifically in Chicago aside from a few shoehorned references to local streets. Intentionally or not, the south-side accent became a convenient way to lend false authenticity to a play that isn’t really about Chicago at all.