Movies' first $20-million woman enters the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre's greenroom shoeless, in nothing-special slacks and sweater. After some sunny amenities, she makes a queen-bee line for the middle sofa-chair that the drones in the room have left for her.
To her left is Bradley Cooper from TV's "Kitchen Confidential," also Broadway-bowing in a revival of Richard Greenberg's 1997 Pulitzer Prize-contender, Three Days of Rain.
To her right is Paul Rudd, the cast's stage veteran, with two credits on Broadway, two Off-Broadway (but both were Neil LaBute's, so that's extra credit) and a Long Day's Journey Into Night in London. In these six theatre outings, he's stunned to learn, four of his leading ladies (present company included) have been Oscar winners. "I'm like a Blarney stone!" he says.
No, this is not Julia Roberts being one of the boys (as if she could). It's Julia Roberts being one of the ensemble. The few interviews she did were done with the whole cast. Not that she needed drumbeating. The minute the box office opened, Rain was off to the races. Now her 12-week run is pretty much picked clean - a testament to movie royalty.
Does the boffo business create cast pressure? Roberts jumps in with a coolly measured response: "That's beside the point for me in what I can do or will do or hope to do. If I thought I would act better because people bought tickets, I would - I really would!"
It's enough she called her shot wisely and well. Many think Rain reigns as Greenberg's best work - his "Rosebud" play - a gnawing drama with a very deep generational gap.
Its two acts are separated by 35 years, and the cast plays different sets of characters. In Act I, as the offspring of two famous architectural partners, they assemble in their dead dads' Soho office for a reading of one father's will - and, tantalizingly, his long-lost diary. The entries of key concern are events during a three-day downpour (April 3-5, 1960) that eroded relationships on every level. Act II replays precisely what transpired between the two partners and the woman in their lives, a wobbly Southern belle right out of Tennessee Williams country who is described at one point as "Zelda Fitzgerald's unstable sister."
"What struck me when I first read the play was this fascination to figure out what the parents were like," admits Cooper. "It's a good hook, putting speculation up against truth. Richard creates very complicated characters you can sink your teeth into. I'm still discovering new things about the two I play, and, hopefully, that'll continue. I can see myself having a drink with Paul in a couple of years, going, 'I think I've got the answer.'"
Rudd laughs and agrees. "We should just do workshops of the play after it closes. I think we'll all be figuring these goddamn people out during the run, after the run and beyond. I love this play so much. When it all came about, I couldn't believe I got cast in it."
Joe Mantello, who directed Rudd in LaBute's Bash, brought him aboard. "I think this was before it was all set up - Julia just wanted to see how it played - and I just went in to read," says Rudd. Because of a typing error, he prepared the wrong two roles and discovered the mistake just before the reading. "There was a bit of a panic," he admits - but, evidently, he did well.
Roberts can't imagine why Mantello thought of her for this, then adds with a laugh, "Well, the second act…" But, seriously: "In the early sixties, not everybody was in touch with their sense of sanity so I think the makings of insanity were unrecognizable in that character."
Given the cart-before-the-horse order of the play, was there a temptation to rehearse the neurotic parents first before tackling their screwed-up offspring? Not necessarily, says Roberts. "It was good we rehearsed it the way it will be presented because there were certain challenges we faced with Act I. Then, after we got through the second act, it illuminated a lot of things, and we all thought we could go back to the first act with more information."
"At the same time," Rudd injects, "it did feel kinda like we were rehearsing two plays. It was weird. Even the energy was different. We were all much happier in the second act."
"Remember?" Cooper throws to Rudd. "You said, 'There's just more life in Act II.'"
Roberts pipes in. "I remember being really happy when we were all at my apartment, eating pizza."
For Rudd, his happiest time was walking to work on his first Broadway show, The Last Night of Ballyhoo, in 1997. "I still feel that. I even said it the other day. It's nice to have your script and coffee as you're walking to the rehearsal space or theatre. It sounds kinda cheeseball probably, but I don't intend it to be: There's something about it when you're doing a play in New York City, all that preparation and stuff. Just walking to work, you feel you're part of something so much bigger than pilot season or going through a movie audition. You feel a part of something that is vital in New York City, that has been around for a hundred years and will continue to be. It does feel pretty exclusive and cool."
Cooper feels the unworthiness of a new recruit. "It's kinda like slipping in at the back and waiting to be found out. I always wanted to be in this line, but I just didn't have the opportunity to do theatre. To be able to work with these two actors, on this play, with this director - it's just incredible. Joe's fantastic. He's got a truth meter that's unparalleled."
Is Broadway what Roberts imagined? "No." (beat) "But you can only fantasize so much about what it'll be like. I can't imagine a group of people getting along better in a situation that's really rather stressful. Even though it's creative and exciting, it's incredibly hard. I joked to my husband and said, 'I will, in the next six months, work harder than I have in the last five years combined - including childbirth.' That, so far, is true."
Broadway, on the surface of it, must seem a sharp left turn in Roberts' career - "I like to be unpredictable" - but the reality is she had nowhere else to go after making it to the top of the movie mountain in 2000 with "Erin Brockovich," striking Oscar gold and cracking the $20-million barrier for actresses. On July 4, 2002, she and cameraman Daniel Moder declared their interdependence in a midnight marriage ceremony on their Taos ranch. The twins - Hazel Patricia and Phinnaeus Walter - arrived November 28, 2004, so she probably figured she had better bolt for Broadway before they hit The Terrible Twos-Times-Two.
"They're Fabulous One-and-a-Half-Year-Olds," contends Mom. "They're just adorable. I can't imagine them being terrible. They're very well-adjusted children."
By actual count, 17 projects-in-development are stockpiling on her doorstep while Hollywood waits for her to get through "this motherhood-and-Broadway phase." Since the start of Three Days of Rain, 30-year-old Reese Witherspoon got her Oscar and $29 million picture, but one suspects Broadway's new Golden Girl isn't losing any sleep over that. "I think it's just being a mom now. I think my tastes are even pickier than they've ever been. To pull your focus away from your family life, it has to be great."
Hallejulia! The quest for good material took her to new mediums. Welcome to Broadway.