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When the Rain Stops Falling

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Victoria Clark and Rod McLachlan
Photo by T. Charles Erickson.

The most tantalizing ongoing question facing the New York theatre scene these days isn't "What's opening next?" or, especially given the economy, "What's closing next?" It is, in fact, "Is there anything that David Cromer can't exquisitely direct?" After all, he's helmed a solid new play (Orson's Shadow), a breakthrough new musical (Adding Machine), and two revivals (the incomparable Our Town and the merely excellent Brighton Beach Memoirs). But, one must wonder, would his usual magic translate to a play whose intense difficultness propels it constantly toward mediocrity? Based on what Cromer does with When the Rain Stops Falling, the answer is an unequivocal yes.

Andrew Bovell's play, which Lincoln Center Theater is producing at its downstairs Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, is less poorly written than it is overwritten and overconceived. It follows two branches of two families across two countries (Britain and Australia) over the span of 80 years, at the different points torrential downpours threaten to sweep humanity off the map. (It's not quite Book of Genesis–level climate change, but it's close.) And the troubles these two clans, the Laws and the Yorks, must endure are so troublesome that you may be forgiven for thinking, like they frequently do, the best course of action may be to start over.

After all, Henry Law (Richard Topol) and his wife Elizabeth (Kate Blumberg when young, Mary Beth Hurt when older) have a less than idyllic marriage, punctuated as it is by Henry's dangerous and forbidden yearnings. Their son, Gabriel (Will Rogers), has his own issues that he attempts to work out with Gabrielle York (Susan Pourfar plays the younger version), but their relationship ends about as tragically as her own parents' lives did. Gabrielle (now older, and played by Victoria Clark) picks up the pieces by taking up with Joe Ryan (Rod McLachlan), whom she needs but doesn't love, so she can raise the son, Gabriel, her own Gabriel never knew. Got all that?

When Bovell adds yet another layer - of Gabrielle's son Gabriel, now grown and played by Michael Siberry, being estranged from his own son, Andrew (Henry Vick) - you may be ready to throw up your hands in exasperation, if not outright bewilderment. It isn't so much that keeping track of everyone is difficult, though it is (I'd recommend keeping your Playbill open to the elaborate family tree helpfully printed inside), but that their travails don't add up as succinctly as Bovell apparently believes to a comparison of how the disintegration of our own personal worlds can feel like the end of the literal world around us.

Mary Beth Hurt and Kate Blumberg
Photo by T. Charles Erickson.

This is where Cromer proves so crucial. From the opening visual, of faceless hordes slicing through the apparent monsoon terrorizing London's streets, he provides in his direction the tension and the suspense missing from Bovell's heavy-handed plotting. With the help of lighting designer Tyler Micoleau and sound designer Fitz Patton, Cromer has staged for that opener the most chilling and realistic storm scene I've ever seen onstage. The billowing grey tarps with which set designer David Korins has draped the ceiling glower down like menacing storm clouds, while Patton's deafening wind and resounding rain drops and Micoleau's maniacal lightning drive you directly into a world where the weather is in complete control. All, by the way, without using a single drop of real water. Now that's theatre.

Cromer doesn't stop there. As the people and problems keep piling up, he makes full use of both Korins's dual revolving stages and the geometry of entrances and exits to ensure that you never miss a single emotion as they echo down the decades. He utilizes more haunting - and distinct - combinations of characters and actors than you may think possible to present what feels like no fewer than three points of view in any given scene. When the younger and older versions of the women are present at the same time (they almost never interact directly), you're equally absorbed in both. On the rare occasions everyone is onstage together, it seems like there are far more than merely nine stories and nine personalities uniting under umbrellas both figurative and factual.

Credit is, of course, strongly due to many of the actors. Hurt and Clark dominate primarily because of their larger chunks of stage time, but they gracefully embody two stirringly contrasting views of modern womanhood: Hurt is all curt smoke and vague disdain as someone who suppresses her pain and passes it down to her descendants; Clark performs a beautifully calculated slow erosion as Gabrielle's pain eats her alive. Blumberg and Pourfar are flawless mirrors as their younger selves; their unassailably faithful looks, mannerisms, and voices define exactly how this most theatrical of devices should always be executed.

Topol is quite convincing as a husband with a devastating secret, all stiff-shoulder detachment and eyes that look beyond whoever is before them - not out of fascination, but embarrassment. McLachlan makes one of the play's most put-upon victims truly sympathetic, both low-key as a nice contrast for Clark's (necessary) histrionics and tortured as proof of the impact unrequited mourning can have on otherwise innocent onlookers. Rogers and Vick are decent in their rather colorless roles; Siberry only comes into his own in the final scene, when wrapping up the plot is the order of the day.

But even that obligatory moment becomes special in Cromer's treatment, which floods the stage with feeling despite the fact that most of the performers onstage don't speak a word. Though the dialogue is garden-variety wrap-up stuff that explicitly spells out the relationships Bovell had rockily established in the preceding 100 minutes, Cromer bestows it with the sheen of a first-ever family reunion, defined as much by the warmth of kin as the uneasiness that can isolate strangers. It's an intoxicating moment of sunshine, and desperately needed at the crowning moment of When the Rain Stops Falling, a play that before that point often seems all wet.

When the Rain Stops Falling
Through April 18
Mitzi E. NewhouseTheatre at Lincoln Center, 150 West 65th Street between Broadway and Amsterdam
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Telecharge