A CurtainUp Review
Three Days of Rain
Paul Rudd, Julia Roberts & Bradley Cooper (Photo: Joan Marcus)
Policeman on horses are on hand to make sure Julia Roberts navigates the crowds milling around the stage door. The movie star with the block wide smile is undoubtedly making a big splash with her limited run Broadway debut. And so, to answer the big question about her appearance in Richard Greenberg's Three Days of Rain: Yes, she does honor to her complex double role as Nan, the well-adjusted oldest child coping with her troubled mother and brother, and as her mother Lina at age thirty.
I saw only the faintest evidence of unease at being on stage and subject to critics casting a jaundiced eye at what they perceive as another celebrity casting gimmick. Her voice projects clearly so none of Greenberg's superb dialogue gets lost (granted I saw the play in a fifth row aisle seat). Her performance is not showboat oomph-y but deliberately and correctly understated. (The play has six interesting and complex characters, but the emotional storm revolves around Walker). If her debut isn't a for the history books knockout, blame director Joe Mantello for not moving her around more during the first act and adding odd touches like having her suddenly pull out some knitting. (*see reader note below).
The really good news is that all those people shelling out premium ticket dollars are likely to walk away from this revival not just happy to have seen Roberts but dazzled by Greenberg's brilliant dialogue and this artfully structured drama. I think the Pulitzer committee erred in not awarding the prize to this play when it premiered almost a decade ago. If the current production weren't a revival but a new play that had opened before the Pulitzer cut-off date, we might not have had a year without an award.
None of this is to say that the actors and the staging aren't crucial to the appreciation of Three Days. After all, a play, unlike a short story or novel, is meant to be seen and heard for the relationship of the characters to make their full impact. Having seen a rather flat production, with a much less dynamic cast just four summers ago proves that no matter how terrific a script is it needs sensitive acting and staging to impress itself on the audience.
One of our California critics who saw the play three times, came to the conclusion that his one disappointing experience was due to its being in too large a venue. But as director Joe Mantello and his creative team prove, the size of the venue need not be deterrent to capturing the nuances of these delicate relationships. Santo Loquasto has turned the apartment where both the scene set in 1995 and the 1960s flashback take place into a loft space that suits the action as well as stage. The bit of rooftop used as an informal balcony adds a wonderfully atmospheric and intimate space for the several scenes set outside the apartment. Loquasto is less successful as costume designer. He seems intent on emphasizeing Roberts' low key part with singularly unflattering outfits.
While detailed story and theme analysis can be found in the two archived reviews (see links below), here's the plot recapped with nutshell concision: Walker (Paul Rudd), his sister Nan (Julia Roberts) and their childhood friend Pip (Bradley Cooper), all meet in New York to divide the legacy of their late fathers, who were partners in a renowned architecture firm. In an effort to bring some peace to their own lives, the three search for clues that might explain what had gone on between their fathers and the women in their lives, decades before. In act two, the story then shifts to that earlier time, with the same three actors portray the previous generation.
If this sounds like yet another drama about a dysfunctional family and the effect of the parents' personalities, guilt feelings and traumas on their children, it is that -- but as written by Greenberg it's much more. And so is the segue from the grown children's present to their parents' youth not just an ordinary flashback. Instead of moving backward and then forward again for a neatly tied up ending, the playwright has left it to the audience to figure out the subtle connections between the two acts.
As with any puzzle, there are clues, notably in Ned's journal with its cryptic entries, starting with "Three days of rain." As you watch Walker's assumptions about his family legacy turned upside down, so will any belief you may have harbored that one can every truly understand other people -- even one's family. It is because Greenberg doesn't neatly fill in all the loose ends but makes the audience figure out the missing details, that Three Days has often been referred to as "a puzzle in two acts."
Since the emotional sturm and drang in this play revolves around Walker, his portrayal is perhaps the most crucial to the play's success. Paul Rudd does not disappoint. He is every inch the emotionally needy, often sarcastic fast-talking Walker, a classic study of a highly intellectual non-achiever. He is even better as the distant father whom Walker so completely misreads. Rudd as young Ned manages to be a convincingly introverted stutterer who is nevertheless quite eloquent during the title's three days -- days that are at once his happiest but probably also were the start of the troubled years of worldly success and personal failure that followed.
Walker's opening monologue is typical of Greenberg's flair for information and humor packed speeches. Bradley Cooper, is also outstanding as the son of Ned's partner Theo. He bounces on stage with a lengthy and hilariously self-deprecating monologue.
Cooper's Pip is the the play's least complex character. He's able to enjoy his success as a television soap actor instead of trying to match the chronic unhappiness of Walker ("I strove to sustain some level of unhappiness because I felt so left out but I couldn't manage it. I don't know-- I feel bad-- I go to the gym-- I feel better. Maybe that means I lack gravitas or something, but the hell with it, I'm having a good time."). Pip has a relaxed, loving rapport with Nan (he follows up his pleasure at hearing that she still loves her husband with a typical Greenberg-ism: "Does he still have his hair?"). His role as Pip's father Theo is more complex but less developed. Ironically Theo, the only nonsmoker in the Nan-Ned-Theo triumvirate, dies of lung cancer at age thirty-eight. Though his death gets just a few brief notes in Ned's diary ("January 3rd-- Theo is dying. . .January 5th -- Theo is dying -- January 18th -- Theo is dead"), it leaves an indelible imprint on Ned and Nan's conscience.
As Cooper is at his most flamboyant in the first act, Roberts gets to shed her reserved Boston mom's persona when she takes on the role of her bright but high strung mother. Lina is a Southern girl who came to New York to find some yearned-for special part of herself and who in Walker's memory became "sort of like Zelda Fitzgerald's less stable sister." I suppose there are those who'd like to see the actress pull out all the stops and explode into more of a wild sex kitten -- but Roberts plays Lina with appropriate restraint, making what happens during those fateful three days that much more touching.
Besides the imposing loft, beautifully lit by Paul Gallo, Mantello has enlisted Jauchem & Meeh to infuse the apartment's exterior with the pounding rain that drives this romantic Frank Lloyd Wright-ish "mystery." To maintain the mood from the get-go he's also insisted that there be no late seating, so make sure to get there in time -- no matter how much you paid for your ticket, if you arrive late, you'll stand until intermission.
For further analysis and details , see our previous reviews:
Three Days of Rain/ Los Angeles 2001 . . . Three Days of Rain/ summer stock
Links to reviews of other Richard Greenberg plays A Naked Girl on the Appian Way
Take Me Out
Hurrah At Last
The American Plan
*Reader note from our Letters section about my puzzlement about the knitting bit: 2006. You're right. Having Julia as the uptight, oh-so-normal sister in 3 Days of Rain, suddenly sit down and knit in the first act seemed to come out of nowhere. However, if the movie star gossip mill is to be believed, director Joe Mantello did this as a little bit of art imitating life -- since Julia is supposedly an on the set knitter (a PR ploy to make her seem normal?) -- Margie, who loves gossip, April 23, 2006.
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