Three’s No Charm

Illustration by Charles WilkinPhoto: Joan Marcus/Courtesy of The Publicity Office

Am I a snob? For months, I’ve been reading about Julia Roberts’s Broadway debut, and how America’s Sweetheart would be imperiled by the cruel, snobby New York critics. Those bastards, I’ve thought, forgetting myself. Because how can you not like Julia Roberts? She is kitty-cats and sunshine and ice cream. And now here she is. And I don’t like her. Maybe I am a snob.

She’s doesn’t embarrass herself, our Julia. She’s not Denzel bad, or Ashley Judd bad (two handy benchmarks for celebrity overreach). It’s just that she doesn’t always know where to put her hands, lacks a dynamic voice, occasionally comes as close to disappearing as somebody that tall and that pretty can disappear on a professionally lit stage, and, despite her Georgia roots, manages to be unconvincing as a southerner. But she finds a few laughs, neatly underplays some zingers, and, every once in a while, looks at ease. She should have been better but could have been worse; Broadway has made her, of all things, ordinary.

Seriously: Who’s surprised? Every year, stars remind us that the skills you need onstage have little to do with the ones you need onscreen. On what backlot was Julia Roberts supposed to learn how to make silence as expressive as speech, for two hours, in front of a thousand people? To judge by her program bio, her most sustained stage experience before this was her Oscar speech. Of course she doesn’t know where to put her hands.

Though you might lose sight of this fact amid the autograph hounds, this isn’t just an elaborate Gawker Stalker sighting: There’s an actual play involved. Richard Greenberg’s wise and heartbreaking Three Days of Rain concerns Walker and Nan, siblings about to receive their late father’s inheritance, and Pip, the son of their dad’s business partner. Walker has found his father’s journal, which begins with a cryptic reference to “three days of rain.” In Act Two, the actors play their parents, whose professional and romantic entanglements reveal how the present misunderstands its past, and the young misjudge their future.

Speaking of bittersweet ironies, director Joe Mantello conveys some of the script’s appeal, but more in spite of the show’s vast resources than because of them. An elaborate rain effect only obscures Greenberg’s nuance. The same goes for the miscast Paul Rudd, who flails as the layout Walker and the siblings’ stuttering father. But as the shallow TV star Pip, Bradley Cooper is a lively surprise. His first-act aria in defense of happy people is the best thing in the show. It made me wish somebody had mined all the wonderful things in this play.

But then somebody has. The premiere nine years ago, starring Patricia Clarkson, John Slattery, and Bradley Whitford, is still described reverently by those who saw it. I can tell why: Greenberg’s writing is moving, provocative, and deeply funny—just what I want from a night at the theater. Try as I might, I can’t get the same pleasure from exotic creatures performing strange feats for uncritical applause—which, if you think about it, also describes a trip to SeaWorld. That makes me a snob, I guess. But why aren’t you one, too?

No one’s going to confuse director Scott Elliott with a snob, not after his new production of The Threepenny Opera. At Studio 54, this is the Brecht-Weill production you would have staged in college, if you’d had the money for four-foot-high neon signs, Cyndi Lauper’s number in your Rolodex, and no shame.

Did the trouble begin with the ads, in which Alan Cumming sports a black pirate bandanna, a walking stick, and a leer that, in toto, could be one of GOB’s magician getups from Arrested Development? Or was it Elliott’s decision to hire actors with “interesting lives,” a process that led, with a galactic sort of inevitability, to Madonna’s baby-daddy Carlos Leon? Could it have been when Isaac Mizrahi decided to send a gentleman onstage in leather chaps and tighty whiteys, which, as part of a glum kickline, makes the cast seem like the Addams Family turned emo band? No, the trouble began when performance rights went to the Roundabout, the most schizophrenic producing organization in New York. The company has given me some of my favorite nights (Intimate Apparel, Assassins) and some of my most taxing (The Look of Love, and now this art crime).

Here, Mack the Knife is still a thief, murderer, and rapist, but he’s also a pansexual sprite. He now has a taste for coke and a jones for kissing everybody—girls, boys, and people who check both boxes. (Polly Peachum, played by the enigmatically charming Nellie McKay, is still female, as is Jenny the prostitute, who’s played by the vacant Lauper; his jilted lover Lucy Brown is played by a man.) Fatally, there’s no sense of the bourgeois about these fetishy criminals, which eviscerates Brecht’s indictment of capitalist morality. Sure, Wallace Shawn’s translation preserves the author’s complaints about the system, but how seriously can you take a socioeconomic critique when a guy onstage is wearing purple hot pants and thigh-high boots?

Photo: Joan Marcus/Courtesy of Boneau Bryan Brown

Still, the show is just dirty enough to delight some in the crowd—that is, the conservatives. Elliott has done them the favor of fleshing out the slur that the left is shallow and sex-obsessed. He has also taken one of the modern theater’s most powerful and delightful attacks on the market’s injustice out of circulation for years. So we must turn to a different show that, in its quiet, workaday way comes closer to Brecht and Weill’s indictment of upwardly mobile criminality than this strenuous production ever will: The Sopranos.

After the silly menagerie of Threepenny, any play would look sublime. But I would have enjoyed Awake and Sing! even without the shellshock. Clifford Odets’s 1935 drama about a Jewish family in the Bronx shows its age at times; the call for revolution doesn’t have the old charge. Still, this man knew how to write a play, full of comedy and a slang that’s almost poetic. Lincoln Center’s new revival delivers it all beautifully.

Though Bartlett Sher gets fine work from Jonathan Hadary as the meek father and Ned Eisenberg as the hustling uncle, the family’s a clunky fit. Zoë Wanamaker’s motherly laments are a little too decorous; Mark Ruffalo is a touch too dreamy-romantic as wiseguy Moe Axelrod, and Lauren Ambrose is too modern-suburban for Hennie, a daughter of the Depression-era Bronx. In the end, these are only imperfections.

The play holds up because Odets didn’t cheat: He makes the case for chasing dreams (of love, of political change) but doesn’t pretend it’s easy—he doesn’t hide the steep human cost involved. In the canonical dramas of Williams, Miller, and O’Neill, characters typically pay dearly for their illusions, but Odets was different. Writing from the deepest sub-basement of the Great Depression, he wrote an almost-great play that dared to end with a flicker of hope, a suggestion that a new life is possible. Even now—especially now—it’s inspiring to see the dreamers win.

Three Days of Rain
By Richard Greenberg. Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre. Through June 18.

The Threepenny Opera
Book and Lyrics By Bertolt Brecht. Music by Kurt Weill. Studio 54. Through June 18.

Awake and Sing!
By Clifford Odets. Belasco Theatre.

Three’s No Charm