Jan 26, 2019

Julia and Paul and Some Guy Named Bradley

Actors Paul Rudd, Julia Roberts and Bradley Cooper appear onstage during curtain call at the opening night of “Three Days of Rain” at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre on April 19, 2006 in New York City | Paul Hawthorne/Getty Images
I recently caught the so-so Amazon series Homecoming (a sharp 90-minute paranoid thriller unaccountably stretched to 5 hours) and found myself mostly enjoying Julia Roberts's sturdy yet labile performanc. After all these years the camera still loves her and she loves it right back, but with a mature, confident, middle-aged-married-for-life kind of love, not with the needy, eager, puppyish affection of her past, which also had its appeal. Clearly she's not going anywhere and I count myself happy—nay, contented—to know we'll be watching her for many more years. You can also sense her relief that it's all going to work out; there's a certain settling down about her, if not quite settling for less. (This serene control makes the contrast with Bobby Cannavale's nervy, jumpy performance all the more fascinating.)

Then I happened to remember the time I reviewed her one performance on Broadway, in Richard Greenberg's Three Days of Rain, for Broadway.com. She wasn't very good onstage, it turned out, and her co-star Paul Rudd wasn't a whole lot better. But there was a young upstart I think I'd noticed on Alias who made a strong impression in his Broadway debut: Bradley Cooper.

In any case, I for one find interesting to look back, though of course one of the lessons of Greenberg's play (if not of Homecoming) is that the past doesn't always provide you the answers you're looking for.

Three Days of Rain

Reviewed by Rob Kendt
Broadway.com, April 20, 2006

Star power is a fragile thing. It can be measured in box-office dollars and eight-figure salaries, it can be burnished by sympathetic lighting and framed by deft publicity spin, but ultimately it's reducible to the flesh-and-blood presence of a single human actor. Nowhere is this more true than in the real time and shared space of the theater, which can prove to be a most unforgiving microscope for an actor's instrument, particularly if that instrument is accustomed to different registers. In the case of Julia Roberts, who uneasily headlines the new Broadway production of Three Days of Rain, the stage is more like a telescope through which her star flickers, recognizably but dimly.

With her Easter Island bone structure, gulping smile and preposterously red cheeks, Roberts is the kind of sui generis star Hollywood supposedly stopped minting decades ago; a soft-focus hybrid of Joan Crawford and Audrey Hepburn, she's a gamine with backbone. But in Richard Greenberg's meditative gem of a play, which has seen better productions elsewhere (including one at L.A.'s Evidence Room five years ago), Roberts is all spine and teeth. First as Nan, a woman mourning her father and tending to her messed-up brother, Walker (Paul Rudd), then as Nan and Walker's blowzy mom, Lina, Roberts gives careful, stilted line readings and moves with a studied diffidence that doesn't seem to belong to the same lithe physical comedienne who caromed so winningly through Erin Brockovich or My Best Friend's Wedding. She's on slightly surer footing when she's still, in tete-a-tetes that play like virtual close-ups, though even from Row D these moments resonate faintly at best.

Roberts' reticence seems to have sent Rudd into hysterics. In the first act, in which Nan and Walker have a tense reunion in the abandoned former studio of their architect father and his partner, the fine-featured, shaggy-haired Rudd paddles furiously, as if he's trying to keep a sinking ship afloat, but he can't strike sparks against Roberts' flinty passivity. Sure, Walker is a raw nerve prone to dramatic disappearances and emotional blackmail, but Rudd plays his highs and lows with such strenuous exertion that Roberts' Nan seems to have little choice but to recede into pity and disapproval. There's little evidence of director Joe Mantello's work in these early scenes, except possibly as a referee.

It takes a third wheel to balance this wobbly frame. As Pip, a happily shallow TV actor whose late father was the other half of the architecture partnership, Bradley Cooper gives a preternaturally assured performance, working himself up to a first-act aria of exuberant pique that kicks the play into vibrant life. With an equal sparring partner, Rudd suddenly has a plausible target for Walker's overcooked anger, and even Roberts rises, with disarmed amusement, to the occasion presented by Cooper's undeniable presence. She may have star power, but Cooper has stage power.

In calling out Walker's self-important angst, Pip doesn't just clear the air; he also clears the way for Greenberg's themes, which had languished under wraps like the old furniture on Santo Loquasto's set, to take dramatic shape. What had seemed until Cooper's entrance like a rough passage from a Lifetime movie starts to resemble the essence of Greenberg's play—a delicately mournful parable of dashed hopes, of well-intended legacies gone awry and of pleasures barely grasped before they fade. And Mantello's production begins to breathe a little.

The second act flashes back to the same studio and shows us a past the architects' children have not imagined: Nan and Walker's yet-to-be father, Ned (also played by Rudd), is a shy, stammering nebbish who allows his partner, Theo (Cooper), to supply the ideas and the ambition he lacks. It makes sense that at first it's the alpha male, Theo, who has the girlfriend, though he doesn't have her very securely; the feisty, erratic Lina (played by Roberts with a swooping, not entirely convincing Southern accent) has the sort of willfulness that blurs with a few drinks into dissatisfaction. So it also makes sense when she turns her fluttering attentions to Ned, and, quite movingly, lends him what is probably her last shred of encouragement.

Here, as in the first act, Roberts underplays and Rudd overcompensates, but this contrast at least resembles the light friction of romantic comedy. And the appropriately rainy climax of this fraught triangle comes off with unexpected force. Ultimately, though, the weather report on this uneven Three Days of Rain is lightly cloudy, zero chance of thunder.

Three Days of Rain
By Richard Greenberg
Directed by Joe Mantello
Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre

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