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STAGE REVIEW

Roberts gets lost in lackluster 'Three Days'

NEW YORK -- ''Three Days of Rain." Two and a half hours of Julia Roberts. One hundred and fifty minutes of tedium.

A gorgeous smile and perky demeanor can get you far in Hollywood. They can even get you onto the podium at the Oscars, where you make a fool of yourself in your acceptance speech.

But even with the 2001 Academy Award for ''Erin Brockovich," Roberts must have decided it was time for really serious actress cred and turned to theatrical properties -- the 2004 film version of Patrick Marber's ''Closer" and the Broadway production of ''Three Days of Rain," which opened here last night.

The failure of ''Three Days" can't completely be tied to Roberts's inability to find her way into the neuroses of a pretty complicated woman. (Actually, two pretty complicated women.) Even the reliable Paul Rudd seems lost in Joe Mantello's wimpy restaging of Richard Greenberg's drama.

Greenberg's play was a deserved Pulitzer Prize finalist in 1998, losing out to Paula Vogel's ''How I Learned to Drive." In 1997 the Manhattan Theatre Club delivered a stunning production, featuring Patricia Clarkson and John Slattery. Bostonians were treated to a fine version by SpeakEasy Stage Company with Dee Nelson and Diego Arciniegas.

What gets lost in set designer Santo Loquasto's cavernous loft on Broadway, besides intimacy, is the sense that Greenberg is offering sharp insight into family dysfunction rather than tossing off amusing one-liners.

Walker (Rudd) and Nan (Roberts) are the children of a renowned architect, who has recently died, and a wife who is described as Zelda Fitzgerald's even more unstable sister. Walker is furious at his closed-down father, and he thinks an entry in a journal he's just found, reading ''three days of rain," is all anyone needs to know about dear-old uncommunicative dad.

Nan, meanwhile, is furious at Walker for his bohemian, irresponsible ways. She's tired of his problems and doesn't even care that he has found the journal in the loft where he's now living, the place in which Dad and Mom met and conceived an architectural breakthrough. Also on the scene is Pip (Bradley Cooper), son of Dad's business partner.

All three of the actors are more or less cast against type in the first act, but Cooper is the only one to carry it off. He was the bad guy in ''Wedding Crashers" and here is the good friend bending over backward to bring Walker out of his funk. Rudd is usually the straight arrow in film and theater but is not a convincingly wacky Walker. Roberts, a cinematic ball of fire, wanders around the stage in the first act as if she's looking for the Prozac.

Such extreme performances help to differentiate the actors from their second-act characters -- the parents, back in 1960 -- but again, only Cooper is believable.

Even though she gets to flash that smile and show a little life onstage, Roberts remains problematic as the zany Zelda-like Lina. You would think she'd be able to handle a Southern accent, but her voice wanders all over the 48 contiguous states, sometimes within the same sentence. If she showed far too little affect in the first act, she shows far too much in the second.

Rudd goes in the opposite direction. And they both favor ending one-liners with exclamation points instead of periods, which only adds to the woodenness of Mantello's staging.

All of which is too bad, because this is probably Greenberg's best play, even better than his Tony-winning ''Take Me Out." Without giving too much away, the journal entry of ''three days of rain" refers to something much different than Walker thought in the first act. Seeing how that plays out, at least in a good production, is heart-rending and eye-opening.

We think we know everything there is to know about our parents, their limitations, and the limitations they lived with. ''Three Days of Rain" warns us not to be so sure, that the world is an ambiguous -- a fascinatingly ambiguous -- place.

When the characters are so lackluster, ''Three Days of Rain" just makes it seem as if the world is predictable and dull.

Ed Siegel can be reached at siegel@globe.com.

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