Theater

Mostly Cloudy: Julia Roberts in 'Rain'

Julia Roberts, with Paul Rudd, debuts on Broadway in
Julia Roberts, with Paul Rudd, debuts on Broadway in "Three Days of Rain." (By Joan Marcus Via Associated Press)
By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 20, 2006

NEW YORK -- Well, she gives it the old college try -- and that is all she appears capable of.

As if marooned on an unfamiliar shore, Julia Roberts staggers hesitantly through "Three Days of Rain," the precipitately dreary comedy-drama that opened last night at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre. It has been the most whispered-about Broadway bow in many a season, and so an audience wanders with Roberts, hopes still high, through much of this feeble exercise, centered on the efforts of three overwrought children to unravel the secrets of their architect-fathers' lives.

The destination turns out to be a dead end. Neither Roberts nor her co-stars, Paul Rudd and Bradley Cooper, are able to draw on the elemental power of the characters' relationships and expose anything close to a raw nerve.

Assembling a complex character who reveals aspects of herself in real space and time -- and in this revival of Richard Greenberg's 1997 play, she must do it twice, in two distinct guises -- is not an effective weapon in Roberts's arsenal. It's understandable, of course. The fine art of seducing a camera lens is not ideal prep work for the very different, often protean task of opening the soul -- and the throat -- to a thousand people every night.

It calls for a radical change in an actor's perspective, and perhaps not one entirely out of her reach. But achieving it takes practice, an absorption of acting-muscle memory. For the time being, all that is radiating off the stage is her, um, natural radiance. A woman seated down the row from me, overheard summing up the impact for a friend, expressed it best: "You go out humming her looks."

What is sometimes the case with stars from her galaxy -- such as Helen Hunt ("Twelfth Night," "Life (x) 3") and Nicole Kidman ("The Blue Room") -- is that Broadway serves as a momentary diversion. Being in a play satisfies a curiosity, it seems, a possibly whimsical desire for a new challenge. Or it might simply be a marketing strategy for the next stage of a career. None of that is necessarily a bad thing, and certainly not at the box office: The 12-week run of "Three Days" is virtually sold out.

Still, a small, cerebrally subtle drama that translates with difficulty to the vastness of a Broadway house might not be the best place to begin lessons in stage performance.

When it was produced off-Broadway nearly a decade ago by the Manhattan Theatre Club, "Three Days of Rain" seemed a fluid puzzle-play that toyed hauntingly with the notion that children's lives are patterned on the mythologies their parents devise for them. The original cast of Patricia Clarkson, Bradley Whitford and, in particular, John Slattery discovered compellingly unsettled people, as well as dreamy poetry, in the playwright's erudite dialogue. But the lightweight production at the Jacobs, directed flatly by Joe Mantello, bears little resemblance to the more substantive original.

Set in two eras in the same SoHo loft, engagingly evoked by designer Santo Loquasto, the play opens with the dissolute Walker (Rudd) and wary Nan (Roberts), son and daughter of a renowned architect, on the eve of the reading of his will. The play delves into their emotional isolation and the strains between them and with Pip (Cooper), the carefree actor-son of the architect Theo -- who was half of the celebrated partnership with Walker and Nan's dad, Ned. After Walker, embittered (and, like Nan, possibly in love with Pip), finds his father's secret journal under a mattress, mysteries that bind the families -- concerning everything from their parents' romantic entanglements to the origins of their fathers' inspirations -- begin to be explored.

The central riddle, about Ned's journal entry for April 3-5, 1960, containing the words "Three days of rain," is elucidated in Act II, when the play travels back 3 1/2 decades to an interlude in which Ned becomes attached to a woman, Lina, who had been involved with Theo. (Rudd now plays Ned; Roberts is Lina; and Cooper, Theo.) It is during these three days of drenching storms that we learn how children's misperceptions about their history can cloud, if not ruin, their own progress.

Greenberg's wit-strewn writing requires these actors to come up with not one, but two plausibly loquacious, highly educated characters. A problem with some of Greenberg's plays, however, is that everyone ends up sounding like Greenberg, and although the actors change clothes -- Roberts adds a drawl, too, and Rudd a stutter -- they remain on this occasion merely opaque word-machines.

The anguish, for instance, that Rudd's Walker is supposed to experience -- the psychic paralysis that has prevented him from doing anything with his talents, or life -- never feels urgent or, for that matter, touching. Cooper, especially in the second act, gives no sense of a man with any sort of artistic underpinnings. The arguments erupting between them in both acts have effects that appear to be opposite of what's intended, seeming to suggest that the men possess no power to wound one another.

Roberts looks ill at ease in the play's first moments. She nervously stumbles on a word or two at the outset, and perhaps the jitters are to be expected: She is aware of the microscope she's under. Once the ice is broken and a few of her lines get laughs, she loosens up. But her Nan is withdrawn, too remote to be read by the audience, and so interest in the character is lost. The audience falls back on star support, laughing, perhaps in a show of sympathy, whenever the star imbues a line with irony.

Roberts loosens up further as the more free-spirited Lina. Yet the portrayal, like all the others in this production, feels merely half-formed, an idea of a person in place of the three-dimensional thing.

The rain, on the other hand, is utterly convincing. The downpour goes on and on. It's such a watchable technical feat that its creators get a mention in the program. And although the rainwater does not collect in pools on the stage, you never fully escape the sensation that the pretty woman is pretty much in over her head.

Three Days of Rain, by Richard Greenberg. Directed by Joe Mantello. Sets and costumes, Santo Loquasto; lighting, Paul Gallo; original music and sound, David van Tieghem; rain, Jauchem & Meeh; hair design, Lyndell Quiyou. About 2 hours 20 minutes. Through June 18 at Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, 242 W. 45th St., New York. Call 212-239-6200 or visit http://www.telecharge.com .


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