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The Close-Up Is Her Voodoo

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Which brings us back to the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, where I returned exactly two weeks after that first preview. Let’s be clear: This isn’t a review. That would, again, be unfair (even though my ticket was once more $250). It would also be stepping on the feet of this magazine’s excellent theater critic, who will deliver his review next week (the play opens this Wednesday). But I can report on the changes.

In the first scene, her hair is down. Big improvement! She charges into the space; she’s brisker, more animated. She still carries that damn shoulder bag and spends too much time with her arms crossed. But her features are readable, at least in Row M, and on certain lines, she gestures with her head—something she’d never do onscreen. She’s learning. Gradually, though, she recedes: The cruel fact is that in Act One, the two guys get all the histrionic speeches—it’s their play—while her character sits and watches. At intermission, the audience is visibly deflated. They want her to be larger-than-life, to dominate.

It’s not like we meanies want to see Our Julia fall flat on her face, the way we might if this were, say, Madonna or Demi. Even if she stank up the stage (which she doesn’t remotely), those of us lucky (and wealthy) enough to score tickets have the privilege of saying we were in the same space, at the same time, breathing the same air as America’s favorite movie star. And maybe, conversely, we have the privilege of saying that we had, for the first time, some power in the relationship—dependent as she was on our applause.

For a movie star like Julia Roberts, the stage is empowering and disabling. In a way she has more control—she’s Out There, on the wire, proving that she doesn’t need handlers to protect her or directors to stroke her after every take. But her superhuman powers don’t work here; she’s vulnerable to laughs and cheers that might not come. True, this is what happens with every single theater actor on every stage everywhere, but come on: This is Julia we’re talking about. The rules don’t ordinarily apply.

In her more extroverted turn in the second act, she finally looks like she’s having fun—and that’s enough, given how much empathy she has built up over the years, to make at least one theatergoer sigh with relief. Even if she gets pilloried by critics and goes racing back to movies, Julia Roberts will have done what she didn’t need to do, maybe what some people will say she shouldn’t have done: shown the world this once that she wasn’t ready for her close-up.


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