“It’s such a quiet play and such a noisy event,” observed the author of the evening, Richard Greenberg. “It’s sort of a cerebral, subtle play, with the biggest star in the world.”
Said another way: “It’s insane, but it’s great insane”—this from the only one of the cast of three with prior Broadway experience: Paul Rudd, who was sufficiently saucer-eyed.
These gentlemen do not exaggerate. It was Event Broadway at its most italic and emphatic. Checking her Oscar at the door and muzzling that enigmatic smile, Julia Roberts gamely decided to work without a camera or a net and stepped on a stage.
Although both of her parents came from theatre, she honed her art in Hollywood with intimate camera acting and only now is getting around to Broadway where big is better—a tough thing to learn at age 38. That she would even bother at these prices says something positive about her determination to prove herself with new challenges.
But she didn’t make this sharp right turn to the stage for the past or for her parents. “It was more present,” she admitted, leaning against a pillar in the Cipriani’s main dining room, looking like a girl who had just given her all at the office. “I mean, Mom’s going to come to see it, and I hope she will like it, but I think it’s more about the here and the now.” Well, speaking of the here and the now, what about those throngs of admirers outsider her stage door night after night? (The fans seemed to be out in full-force on opening night, but Roberts’ publicist, Marcy Engelman, said they were only half-full, that the crowds have been enormous.) How does a girl stay focused amid such staggering distractions?
Roberts smiled The Smile and admitted she didn’t know how she did it—more priorities, she imagined, than powers of concentration. “All of a sudden, there wasn’t an awareness, especially since we were working so hard. We were in that theatre so much. I had a very limited awareness of what was going on outside of my house or the theatre. Really.”
Even a Tony-winning veteran like Joe Mantello was rattled by the racket attending Roberts’ arrival on Broadway. “The hardest thing about directing this,” he said, “was, once we moved into the theatre, the kind of noise outside—both literal and metaphorical noise. When we rehearsed the play, it was a really normal rehearsal process. Then—I remember thinking at the first preview, ‘Oh, right. It’s Julia Roberts.' I had kinda forgotten about that during the four weeks that we had had together rehearsing the play.”
Bernard Telsey, who cast the play, gives Mantello credit for coming up with Bradley Cooper , a wholly untested Broadway commodity, for the third member of the cast. “I’ve known Bradley for a few years because some of my friends are on ‘Alias,’” said Mantello, meaning actor Ron Rifkin for one and writer Jon Robin Baitz for two. “They live in the same apartment complex, so I was aware of him and I thought he’d be terrific for this.”
Cooper, who is as well-known for Fox’s “Kitchen Confidential” as he is for “Alias,” makes the most of his main chance on the Main Stem. It’s the performance of someone solidly establishing his beachhead on Broadway, and the effort was showing when he arrived at the party with his sister, Holly. “It has been quite an experience,” he understated wearily, “but now that we’ve started, I think, I’ll have a lot more fun.”
CAA kingpin George Lane laughed when asked his favorite client in Three Days of Rain —he represents Mantello, Greenberg and Roberts—and, in truth, is the sly, shy, silent architect of this whole enterprise. “He’s the one that kinda made suggestions to all of us,” explained Mantello, “but I think we all came together and thought it would be a good idea on our own. He does what an agent does: He makes you get there and pulls people together and says, ‘You might like each other,’ and, in this case, he was 100% correct.”
Another quiet, critical contribution Lane made occurred in the play’s formative stages when he read an early draft and suggested the complete elimination of a subsidiary character who appeared in both acts of the play—a woman who owned a restaurant near the Manhattan loft where the play is set. Greenberg caved and now confesses, with the advantage of hindsight and nine years of playing, “What she was doing in it, I dunno.”
A Pulitzer Prize contender in 1997, Three Days of Rain occupies two different time zones and adapts two different rhythms—a dirge for Act I (1995) and a fox trot for Act II (1960).
Taken together, the juxtaposition underlines how little we know our parents. In the first act, a brother, sister and best friend reunite for the will-reading of an architectural tycoon who has died a month earlier; the second act flashbacks to three days of rain 35 years earlier when the budding empire of the tycoon and his partner dissolves over the love of the same woman. Act I is second-generation speculation; Act II provides the answers.
The crucial prop of the play is a long-lost diary of the deceased; it has been unearthed and is being interpreted by one of the surviving sons—so it was a matter of some internal angst when Rudd flung it to the floor early in the first act and it inexplicably flew off the lip of the stage into the audience. Two minutes later, a shadowy figure—the only movement in the house—slinked down the side aisle to signal a first-rower to put the book back on the stage, as it would be needed in the rest of the play. The diary, in fact, goes up in flames at the end of the first act, with Rudd cackling in the closing line, “I feel like Hedda Gabler.”
So, the poor actor walked over to the edge of the stage and reached out for the book. When handed it, without breaking character (exactly), he received it with a mute Rudd nod that translated “Much obliged” drawing laughs and applause from the audience.
“It would have been rude just to take it,” Rudd reasoned later at the party. “Sometimes, crazy stuff like that will happen. It never happened before. I imagine—and hope—it will never happen again, but I felt it in a way kinda made me wake up and yell to myself, ‘Oh, yeah, I’m in a play,’ and suddenly I felt rooted in a way I don’t think I was before that.”
The character Rudd plays in the second act has a stammer, and the actor put in the homework to get it right. “I went on line to find documentaries on the subject and found one and then met with the director of that. I also talked to Carol Alexander, who runs a theatre group called Our Time Theatre Company, which is all kids who have speech impediments. I watched people talking on camera with speech impediments. It’s important he have a stutter but not be defined by it. It’s really the relationship of these characters.”
All hands hit the Cipriani looking pretty bushed by the evening, but playing to the end of the string and running the glittering gauntlet of flashbulbs and TV cameras as fast as their handlers could herd them through it. No photographs were allowed at the party inside.
Greenberg hit E over high C in his praise for his star—“smart,” “wonderful,” “adorable,” he trilled. “Like, you would have ordered this if you could, so it’s been just unbelievably charming to discover that someone this big would be so accessible and cooperative. If anyone has the right to a moment of divaness, it would be Julia—and there wasn’t any.”
The day before the opening, Greenberg moved on this his next play, The House in Town, which Doug Hughes is directing toward a June 19 opening at Lincoln Center’s Mitzi Newhouse Theatre. Jessica Hecht, Mark Harelik, Armand Schultz and Dan Bittner are the stars, but Greenberg is a little hesitant to say what it’s about. “Let’s just say it takes place in the early months of 1929 and focuses on a marriage on NYC’s 23rd Street between 9th and 10th Avenues. The complex I lived in for 15 years is just being built. It centers on the house across the street, which was then known as Millionaire’s Row.”
Roberts’ husband, cameraman Daniel Moder, was showing relief at having made it beyond the opening night performance. “That was the biggest hurdle,” he said. “She’s making it on her own, and she’s doing, I think, phenomenal work. I’m so proud.”
At the party, Roberts lit up at the sight of novelist-turning-screenwriter Michael ("The Hours") Cummingham and made a point of pulling her hubby over to meet him. “We’re working on a movie together,” Cunningham relayed later.”The title of the novel is `Good Grief,' but I think the movie may have a different title. Julia would play a young woman who loses her husband, journeys through the grieving process and comes back to life. I’ll submit the draft now that Julia has the show up on its feet and we can really explore it.”
The stress of such a high-profile Broadway opening was practically palpable, and even the Security had Security. The procession of celebrities befitted the Hollywood royalty in the center ring. Oprah Winfrey led the big parade, followed by a graying Sir Cameron Mackintosh, Mayor Bloomberg and Diana Taylor, Diane Sawyer and Mike Nichols, Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins, Jerry Dixon and Mario Cantone (Boston’s only banned favorite son, heading home for his first concert there in 12 years), Elaine Stritch (in her white Stanley Steamer smock), James Gandolfini (who spent a “Sopranos” hiatus with Roberts and Brad Pitt playing a gay gangster in need of Tony Soprano-type therapy in "The Mexican"), Rocco DiSpirito, Matthew Bourne, Lynn Nottage, choreographer Wayne Cilento, Sam Rockwell, baseball giant Cal Ripken Jr., Claudia Shear, Amy Ryan, bandsman Dave Matthews (who used Roberts in his “Dreamgirl” video), Tovah Feldshuh (who will be apparently playing Hello, Dolly! at the Paper Mill Playhouse June 10-July 23 in a new key: “The key to Dolly is Dolly Gallagher Levi,” she declared); Norbert Leo Butz and Laura Benanti (who arrived late and not together from their respective shows, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and The Wedding Singer), Celia Weston (who co-starred in Rudd’s Broadway debut, The Last Night of Ballyhoo), Rosie Perez, director George C. Wolfe, Kristen Johnston (who’s playing Drew Barrymore’s sister—smart casting that, although Johnston says it’s a little Mutt-and-Jeff-y—in "Words and Music by...," currently before the cameras in New York), composer William Finn and, ominous-looking as ever, James Lipton. Director Mantello had a raft of former co-workers in attendance. His lover and his wife from Angels in America—David Marshall Grant and Marcia Gay Harden—never quite got together for a Not-Together-Again photo-op, but they were in attendance. (Grant is hoping for Drama Desk/Outer Critics Circle award nominations for his Pen stars, Reed Birney and J. Smith-Cameron.) Mantello’s Love! Valour! Compassion! contingent included its Tony-winning author Terrence McNally (whose Some Men, a cavalcade of same-sex marriages, world-premiering May 12-June 11 at Philadelphia Theatre Company prior to a fall gig here at Second Stage) and John Benjamin Hickey (who just did an ABC pilot called “A House Divided,” a modern-day Civil War story which he lords over as President of the United States—and the native of Plano, TX wants it known that he is doing it without an accent or anything that would suggest “what we have now”). Numbering among his Wicked friends were the original Wizard (Joel Grey) and adapter Winnie Holzman, who leaves Monday with Mantello to cast their show in London, was on the arm of Mark Nelson (today an actor at Long Wharf in Underneath the Lentil, tomorrow a director—of Tina Howe’s Coastal Disturbances at the Berkshire Theatre Festival).
The critical dust has settled for Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, whose Based on a Totally True Story opened last week at Manhattan Theatre Club. “I knew it would be not everyone’s cup ot tea, but I’m so proud of this production, and I’m very pleased with the way it was received,” he said. Now, he and director Michael Bush have moved on to Good Boys and True, which will get a reading Monday night. The subject is, suddenly, topical: “It’s about a high school senior who’s on a prep-school football team and gets caught up on a scandal. His mother is trying to figure out if he was actually involved in this incident, and, if he was, why he would have been.” Victoria Clark and Peter Stadlen head the cast.
Those hordes of Hallejulia nuts dispersed after the curtain rose and returned the minute it came down, but the difficult-to-time intermission was fan-free, despite the stars conspiucously present. Elizabeth Ashley was looking forlornly across the street at Sam’s, which, like Barrymore’s before it, is set to shutter April 20. If you only knew the amount of my life that I spent there centuries ago, when it was Charley’s,” she sighed sadly.
Asked what her next career move would be, she said, “I’m waiting for this one to come up with what he wants my next thing to be.” By “this one,” she meant the man on her arm, pal/producer/publicist Jeffrey Richards, who put her in his Enchanted April and The Best Man and tried his dardest to put her in his next. Unfortunately, his next is The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial, opening with an all-star, all-male cast May 7 at the Schoenfeld. A pity, because the addition of a Madame Queeg might have been a colorful extra.