Three Days of Rain by Richard Greenberg. Directed by Joe Mantello. Set and Costume Design by Santo Loquasto. Lighting Design by Paul Gallo. Original Music and Sound Design by David Van Tieghem. Rain by Jauchem & Meeh. Cast: Julia Roberts, Paul Rudd, Bradley Cooper.
Relinquishing worldwide film stardom for Broadway, however temporarily, is either an act of tremendous courage or immense foolishness; not everyone can be Hugh Jackman. So, while Julia Roberts's Broadway debut in Three Days of Rain, at the Bernard Jacobs, is occasionally creditable, it's hardly a triumph on par with her Hollywood career.
That, though, is not entirely her fault: Broadway, especially the Broadway of director Joe Mantello and playwright Richard Greenberg, is never safe, however killer one's resume. Roberts has been protected for years within the insulated bubble of Hollywood, coasting on her gently pleasing acting ability (and her genuine box-office potential) in films that have required little of her but to spin variations on Good Girls Gone Wrong.
One thinks immediately of her breakout performance as a golden-hearted hooker in Pretty Woman, or her golden-hearted victim of unrequited love in My Best Friend's Wedding. She's made formulaic romantic comedies (Runaway Bride and Notting Hill), starry heist films (Ocean's Eleven and Ocean's Twelve), and even the requisite important picture, Erin Brockovich, for which she won an Oscar.
If she remains today's quintessential female film star, with more charm and less edge than most of her closest competitors, it's been a while since she truly stretched herself in roles that dipped appreciably beneath the surface. The desire for more challenging work, as well as for the guaranteed popular and financial success (indeed, this production's 12-week run was all but sold out when previews began), can easily explain why someone of Roberts's clout would set out to conquer theatre after conquering film.
What isn't clear is why Roberts would choose this for her premiere outing. Greenberg's play, which premiered at Manhattan Theatre Club in 1997, does not offer a tour-de-force opportunity for its female lead. She's a crucial element in this story of how children and parents inform each others' lives, even before birth and after death. But the woman is primarily a catalyst for events, one who herself does very little: The true protagonist is instead the lead actor.
Here, that's Paul Rudd, also an established film star, though one possessing solid theatre credentials. We're introduced to him as Walker Janeway, a young man holed up in a downtown Manhattan loft on the 1995 day that he and his sister will claim the inheritance of their architect father, Ned. They cherish the innovative glass house he and his partner, Theo, designed 35 years before, and Walker wants it so that he may finally end the nomadic lifestyle that's been driving his dangerously sane sister, Nan (Roberts), crazy.
She agrees, but neither counts on the interference of their longtime friend, Pip (Bradley Cooper), Theo's son, who himself had a close relationship with Ned. The bequeathment of the house stirs up long-held resentments and even longer-held secrets, all of which trace back to part of one week in April, 1960, described by Ned in his journal with only four cryptic words: "Three days of rain." Once the children's lives start to crumble, the mysteries can only be resolved by a second-act visit to that week to see how the parents, now played by the same actors, set in motion the events that would take decades to resolve.
Roberts only shines as Walker and Nan's mother, Lina: As the Southern girl let loose in the big city, she's allowed to unleash the affable charm and girl-next-door likeability audiences have come to expect from her, and delivers warmth and complexity comparable to that in her best movie work. Lina, whose relationships with Ned (Rudd) and Theo (Cooper) incited the rift between the families, is the kind of emotional interloper Roberts always intimately understands, and to whom she can bring a certain depth of feeling.
But if she's defeated as Nan, a Long Island housewife and mother whose deflated personal outlook and tightly wound concern for her own well-being as part of a deranged family almost makes her the anti-Julia Roberts, it's not because she's actively doing anything wrong. She's playing Julia Roberts playing complicated, which is insufficient to bridge the gap between mother and daughter. Anyone who can't do that is miscast, as Roberts ultimately is.
That this highlights Roberts's limitations is not surprising; she's always been good enough, but she's never been great. This role, like so many of Greenberg's, requires a great actor, someone who can not only reconcile the disparate halves of this one personality, but overcome the playwright's often glaring inability to write dialogue intended for real human beings.
"I spent months pretending I was that sort of person made ecstatic by olive oil," quips Walker at one point; later, Nan must actually say, "Then it would occur to me that what I was so certain had happened to him almost certainly had not happened to him - the mere fact of my inventing it had made it unlikely and there would be a momentary, I don't know, rest, I suppose." Roberts, trained in the far simpler and more naturalistic realm of film, can't imbue lines like these and others with the elevated life they require to work, let alone make sense.
But if Greenberg's dialogue seldom rings believably in the ear, a performer who can sell it can always connect it to his or her character's heart, as both Rudd and Cooper intermittently demonstrate. Rudd is more successful as the nerdy, introverted Ned, who only gradually comes into his own as an artist and a lover, than as Walker, who's more vacant than vagabond. Cooper makes Pip an impetuous, loudmouthed force of nature, banging out his uneasy lines with Gatling-gun precision, but so shrinks away from Theo that he becomes all but invisible, as though he, like Roberts, is miscast in a role for which he partially seems ideally suited.
Mantello, as usual, is of no help. (Santo Loquasto's unduly elaborate set and the fine Jauchem & Meeh rain effects hint at where the director's priorities lay.) But you sense that Rudd and Cooper only need shaping, not shepherding, to bring their portrayals to fruition.
Roberts, though, has such specific gifts that her tackling something this densely difficult seems practically cruel. She ought to have first wet her feet with something lighter, easier, more familiar - what might have happened had she, not Amanda Peet, been cast in Barefoot in the Park? - to cultivate her stage chops. Unfortunately, Three Days of Rain won't help much of anything bloom.