Craig and Jackman: Shaken and stirred

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They're best known as cinema's action men. But now Daniel Craig and Hugh Jackman are trying their luck on the New York stage. David Usborne witnesses the birth of two new Broadway stars

The woman in the front row of the Schoenfeld Theatre at a preview of A Steady Rain, which opens on Broadway in New York today, was not there to soak in its linguistic nuances or even the acting talent that was spilling into the stalls. Since it was she who finally succumbed to popping a photograph during the curtain call – at least she waited that long – I am guessing she was there to admire certain male physiques.

You would expect this of a play starring two men whose names are Daniel Craig and Hugh Jackman. These are hunky, handsome gents, after all, who have diligently sculpted their bodies to envy-inducing perfection to protect their contracts as leading men in the Bond and X-Men movies respectively. When Jackman was last on Broadway, in The Boy from Oz, a female fan actually charged the stage.

But there is no peeling off of shirts in this 90-minute drama. Nor is there much either of music or set furniture, the latter provided by two chairs, two overhead lamps and only occasional backdrop glimpses of landscape, urban and rural. These appear to be projections, although it is hard to tell, because they are both vivid and gloomy. All of the power of this play comes from the actors and, as it happens, their hands.

The play is a fast-paced narration by two Chicago cops, first about the things that brought them together. They met, says Danny, played by Jackman, in "kinnygarten" and have been there for each other ever since, including in their squad car night after night for years (there are reasons they've never made it to detective). Danny paints himself as the more grounded of the two with a wife, kids and big-screen TV while Joey is a bit damaged, with a history of alcohol abuse and no steady dating.

As we progress, and the two begin to relate the sequence of events that destroys the friendship and other things besides (including human lives), we gradually see the roles reversed. Joey, who always loses in friendly fights with his friend, turns out to be the less tragic of the pair – though that's not saying much.

It's a winning but familiar formula: rough-hewn men with testosterone to spare stumble suddenly, unable to control their destinies and those of others around them in the way they imagined. Of course, Craig and Jackman use all the sinews of body and voice to pull all this off, but rarely will you see two actors do so much with their hands. They clench, they point, they show devil horns, they punch and they grab thin air in moments of anger and frustration. There is a whole drama school course in this somewhere.

The biggest break for everyone is that it is Craig and Jackman on stage. The two men inevitably spark a full minute of applause the instant the lights go up, but in surprisingly short order these mega-celebrities are eclipsed by their characters. On the night I watched, the audience were as quick on its cues as the actors, groaning as one as each turn of the characters' accelerating journey into self-destruction unfolds.

It's surely a blessing for playwright Keith Huff, who first saw A Steady Rain in Chicago last year with little thought that it would reach Broadway so fast, let alone with this cast. He does enough with the dialogue that we recognise Danny and Joey instantly. Huff himself comes from a family partly populated by Chicago cops. And the shocking event that finally catapults these two men to disaster is based on a true story,

Similarly contented, surely, is the director of this compact two-hander, John Crowley, who was last on Broadway with the even more dour The Pillowman by Martin McDonagh. He now finds himself with what promises to be the biggest hit of the season. A Steady Rain drew in $3m in advanced sales in the first week that tickets were on sale, even though it is up against some sterling competition, including when it comes to star-wattage. On assorted Broadway stages this autumn will also be the likes of Catherine Zeta Jones, Sienna Miller, Jonny Lee Miller and Jude Law. Indeed, it may be that Craig and Jackman together break the 2006 box office record set by Julia Roberts when she trod the New York boards in Three Days of Rain.

Craig was the first to hear of A Steady Rain after one of the producers of the Broadway incarnation (who also include Barbara Broccoli who doubles as one of the Bond film producers, of course) sent him the script. Craig, who is appearing on a New York stage for the first time, had been searching for a new piece of theatre writing. Weeks later, Craig telephoned Huff to say he wanted to do it. Some time after that the producers zeroed in on Jackman as the man they wanted to play the other cop. He agreed, but asked that it be put in New York where he lives.

Before they began rehearsing in a film studio in Brooklyn – taking breaks and bonding more tightly with the help of a ping-pong table – the two men spent a week hanging out with Chicago cops on the beat.

If this was a gamble, it pays off handsomely. There's a sheer meatiness to each of their performances that will leave most in the audience entirely satisfied, even those who had hoped at least for a second of shirtlessness. A measure of Mr Craig's performance is this: not in a million years would you imagine that in another life this man called Joey, up on stage with a drooping moustache, sad eyes and flat hair could possibly be a suave spy-hero called James Bond.

Brits on Broadway: The new UK invasion

Jude Law

The 36-year-old actor is already wowing preview audiences in the Donmar's production of 'Hamlet', which transferred to the Broadhurst Theatre earlier this month having already played to sell-out crowds in London's West End and at Kronborg Castle in Elsinore, Denmark. The critics go in next week, but with the stalls nearly at capacity and tickets going for an average of $94 a head, the producers won't be too worried.

Haydn Gwynne

One of the few original members of the cast to remain with 'Billy Elliot' as it transferred to Broadway from the West End, Gywnne plays Billy's doughty dance teacher Mrs Wilkinson. Stephen Daldry's production became the toast of New York when it scooped 10 Tonys this summer.

Catherine Zeta Jones

The Welsh wonder will make her Broadway debut as Desiree Armfeldt in a revival of Stephen Sondheim's 'A Little Night Music'. Trevor Nunn's production began life at London's Menier Chocolate Factory (popularly renamed the Menier hit factory for its run of musical successes, including 'Sunday in the Park with George' and 'La Cage aux Folles', which starred Maureen Lipman). For New York, Zeta Jones will be joined by fellow Brit Alexander Hanson, and Angela Lansbury. Previews begin at the end of November.

Sienna Miller

Across the great white way from her former beau, Jude Law, Sienna Miller has just begun previews for her Broadway debut in 'After Miss Julie'. The dazzling playwright Patrick Marber, whose last play dragged Moliere's 'Don Juan' into modern-day Soho, has adapted August Strindberg's original script ('Miss Julie'), updating it from 19th-century Norway to London on the eve of Labour's historic landslide victory in 1945. Jonny Lee Miller also stars.

Douglas Hodge

In a hit from London's Menier Chocolate Factory, Douglas Hodge will once more don the feathers and sequins as he reprises his Olivier Award-winning turn as Albin, the ageing drag queen in Harvey Fierstein and Jerry Herman's musical 'La Cage aux Folles' in April.

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