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Theater review: 'Three Days of Rain' at South Coast Repertory

May 22, 2011 |  4:44 pm

Three days 1a 

 Julia Roberts made her Broadway debut in Richard Greenberg’s “Three Days of Rain,” and the current revival of the play at South Coast Repertory suggests why (beyond her obvious inexperience) she may have fizzled: The drama belongs to the actor playing the parts of Walker, the gay, neurotic son stricken with wanderlust, and Ned, his diffident architect father, whose life was an enigma his death refuses to resolve.

These roles are assumed in David Emmes’ rewarding production by Kevin Rahm in a performance so assured and honest that it clarifies the complicated emotional through-line of Greenberg’s bifurcated play. Perhaps you’re familiar with Rahm from “Desperate Housewives,” “Mad Men” or “Judging Amy.” I know him only from his appearance at SCR in Kate Robin’s “What They Have.” His work here — adroit in handling the play’s cascade of glimmering language, utterly genuine in exposing old psychological wounds — is unforgettable.

“Three Days of Rain” revolves around the legacy of an important architect, and the play’s own design is akin to one of those strikingly modern houses that are as seductive as they are alienating. The great accomplishment of Emmes’ production, which also stars Brendan Hines and Susannah Schulman, is that he makes the drama not just habitable but comfortably inviting.

The play — commissioned by SCR, where it was first produced in 1997 — looks perfectly at home in the loft set designed by Thomas Buderwitz. This intriguingly urban space with character-enhancing brick walls is barren except for a bed in the first half (set in 1995) and becomes more cheerfully tenanted as we march back to 1960 in the second act.

Walker, a self-styled flâneur, is squatting in this attractive hovel, owned by his father, Ned, who used the building early in his career as an office and apartment. This brilliant, high-strung, evidently troubled man is waiting for his sister, Nan (Schulman), whom he hasn’t seen in some time. The two have a meeting with an attorney to find out the extent of what their eminently successful father left them in his will.

Getprev-6 Nan is aghast at her brother’s living situation, but she’s even more perturbed by his extended absences, his tendency to go off on long European rambles without any notice. She’s reluctant to let him back into her affections, knowing that he’ll go AWOL again, leaving her wondering whether he’s alive or dead or perhaps just descended into madness like their mentally ill mother, Lina, whom Walker puckishly describes as being like “Zelda Fitzgerald’s less stable sister.”

Walker has found a journal that belonged to his remote, uncommunicative father, and he’s particularly exasperated by one entry that reads “1960, April 3rd to April 5th — Three Days of Rain.” Why would this reticent man jot down a weather report? Is there some hidden meaning behind the banality, or did he in fact have nothing of import to say?

The question takes on greater urgency after one of the prized jewels of Ned’s architectural portfolio is left to Pip (Hines), the handsome TV actor son of Ned’s long-dead business partner. Walker had hoped, in a sort of reconciliation with his aggrieved childhood, to make this glass house his home. Now he’s left with a larger riddle and frustrated surmises.

The second act returns to that confounding and apparently fateful span of drizzly spring in 1960, with the actors who played the children now taking on the role of the parents. Rahm is equally convincing as the young, stuttering architect struggling for his professional and personal identity, and it’s fascinating to see him relinquish Walker’s hyper-articulateness for Ned’s broken speech — a contrast that when embodied by the same performer suggests these qualities may be opposite sides of the same insecurity.

Greenberg has written a kind of generational mystery in which the past really is another country, one that the present, groping for insight into its own origins, can’t help misjudging. Much as I was intoxicated by the play when I first encountered it at the Manhattan Theatre Club in 1997, with John Slattery, Patricia Clarkson and Bradley Whitford launching into Greenberg’s giddy arias like opera singers with fiendishly high IQs, I don’t think I fully appreciated the depth of feeling in the work until Emmes’ production.

My praise isn’t free of quibbles. Schulman, so effective at silently conveying historical reasons for Nan’s protective reserve, is saddled in the second half with a disastrous wig that encourages her to overdo the flamboyant Southern staginess of Lina before she became Walker and Nan’s unbalanced mother. (Schulman, to her credit, manages to heartbreakingly hint at the desperation that leads Lina to attach herself to Ned — two broken people in need of a lifeline.)

The rhythm of Act 2 is still a bit unsettled, and Hines, who cuts such a distinctive figure as the dashing yet not insincere Pip, gets lost in the staccato shuffle as Theo, the supposed genius of the nascent architectural firm. Increasingly, there’s a rushed quality to the direction that makes even Ned’s resonant final line (“The beginning … of error”) seem abrupt.

But the production has an emotional lucidity that overrides these issues. Greenberg’s plays are often too clever for their own good. Their bright ideas can blind the author’s common sense. But thanks in large measure to the way Rahm balances the buoyant theatricality with aching naturalness, this “Three Days of Rain” is as sensitive as it is smart.

--Charles McNulty\charlesmcnulty

‘Three Days of Rain,” South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa.  7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays-Fridays, 2:30 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. Sundays. Ends June 12. (Call for exceptions.) $28-$66. (714) 708-5555 Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes

Photos:  Top: Kevin Rahm and Susannah Schulman. Bottom: Kevin Rahm and Brendan Hines. Credit: Glenn Koenig/Los Angeles Times