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Theatre

You learn a lot about top-tier performers by the projects they pick. If it's all about ego and self-glorification, it's star vehicles all the way. But not so for the biggest star of them all, Julia Roberts, who pulls a fast one by choosing Richard Greenberg's Three Days of Rain for her Broadway debut. Nan is a modest role; it's the play's plethora of ideas and expansive language that are—or should be—the main attraction. It isn't at all Nan's play.

Act I, set in a downtown Manhattan loft, finds Nan's brother, the peripatetic Walker (Paul Rudd), crashing in the same loft where 35 years earlier their now-famous architect father, Ned, huddled with his business partner, Theo, to design a landmark structure, Janeway House. Theo is long dead and now Ned is, too, and here comes Nan—fresh from Boston, marriage, family life—ready to hear the lawyer read their father's will.

Compared to Nan, whose lines tend toward the staccato, Walker is a classic Greenberg character: too bright, too much a conveyor belt for verbal exhibitionism. Words like "überkind" and "torpid" tumble forth in waves from this troubled, tousle-haired lost boy. He is an itchy brew of neuroses, homosexuality, and elliptical anguish.

During this first act, Roberts seems stiff beside Rudd, clutching her bag and keeping her raincoat on for an interminable stretch. But her choice is right: Nan is a well-combed lost girl, now a tightly wound woman.

Walker expects to inherit Janeway House, but Ned has left it to Theo's son Pip (Bradley Cooper), who stars on a soap opera as "someone named Butte who never wears a shirt and is carnally entangled with someone named Savannah." To explain this, Greenberg shifts in Act II to 1960—with the actors playing the parents of the characters from Act I—when Ned (Rudd) and Theo (Cooper) were deep in their artisanship and when Lina's (Roberts) romance with Theo yielded to something deeper with Ned. (Rudd's technical mastery of Ned's pronounced stutter is extraordinary.) Occurring over three rainy days, Act II allows Roberts to play the character with traces of her own native Southern accent, which comes and goes.

A story of personal challenges—of intimacy, creativity, searching, and meaning—requires actors to work small, not to drop loads of bombast. And small is how Roberts works. Watch how she moves her hands, darts her eyes, furrows her brow, softens her voice; watch how she gravitates physically toward her fellow actors. It's stage acting more suitable for Off-Off-Broadway, perhaps. Given time, she'll be very good, for her instincts are there, even if there is a certain incompletion to her technique.

If anything, it is Rudd and Cooper who are forced to tiptoe up to the ledge of overacting, and that's only because they're taking their cue from Greenberg's literary curlicues and Joe Mantello's souped-up direction, including lots of onstage rain. Broadway is a cruel place to develop your craft, and Roberts must assuredly feel that cruelty. But people who don't understand what she's doing—and who expect a star performance—are all wet.

> > > > > Reviewed by Leonard Jacobs

at the Palace Theatre

While it's not as horrendous as either of Broadway's most recent vampire tuners, Lestat, the latest musical to attempt to bring the undead to life, is pretty much a corpse. Dance of the Vampires was written and staged in such exquisitely bad taste, it will live on as a memorable megaflop. Dracula wasn't quite as magnificent a stinker, but it did have its Carrie-like moments of classic unintentional campiness. Lestat is just plain boring.

Based on a series of best-selling novels by horror queen Anne Rice, this two-hour-plus snoozefest chronicles the decades-long quest of the title character, a nocturnal charmer, for a companion as he puzzles out the meaning of a vampire's existence. ("Am I evil?" and "Why doesn't God stop me from killing?" are some of his deeper questions.) Rice's popularity derives from her ability to portray forbidden sexual proclivities—homoeroticism, incest, pedophilia—under the attractive guise of the supernatural. Her strong sense of structure and storytelling are qualities this show is missing.

It's significant that the major shared credit of Lestat's book writer, Linda Woolverton, and its director, Robert Jess Roth, is Beauty and the Beast. These two have drained the passion from Rice's hot-blooded bloodsuckers, leaving a Disney-like version of the author's original, unique hellish vision—though it's produced by Warner Bros. Theatre Ventures. The sets by Derek McLane, lighting by Kenneth Posner, and visual concept aren't even as scary as the Haunted Mansion at Disney World.

The score by Elton John and Bernie Taupin isn't much help; it sounds like every other Andrew Lloyd Webber retread that's played Broadway and/or the West End in the past 25 years. A power ballad that's sung with American Idol intensity followed by a power ballad that's sung with…you get the idea.

An exciting leading man might have breathed life into this monster. Hugh Panaro possesses a satisfactory voice and stunning good looks, but he lacks the charisma to convince us that anyone would follow him beyond the grave. Carolee Carmello—one of Broadway's underused treasures—is wasted in the absurd role of Lestat's mother, an invalid who becomes a carnivorous amazon after her son bites her on the neck. Carmello must employ her powerful pipes to extol the virtues of slaughtering innocent victims as she travels the world in search of fresh blood, but she earns her paycheck just by keeping a straight face.

The only performer to ignite a spark of interest is young Allison Fischer as the child vampire Claudia. In the character-defining number "I Want More," she exhibits an energy and drive sadly lacking in the rest of this zombieish enterprise.

Reviewed by David Sheward

Roundabout Theatre Company at Studio 54

Alan Cumming needs to find a new role. He's playing a variation on the one that made him a star—the emcee in Cabaret, the slinky, ambisexual seducer—in Scott Elliott's lopsided revival of The Threepenny Opera. It's even being presented by the same theatre company (Roundabout) and at the same venue (Studio 54) where Cumming first gave a new spin to decadence in Weimar Berlin. (Cumming also played a lovable, sexed-up seducer in Design for Living, also produced by Roundabout.)

Here, Cumming is a tame Mack the Knife, Weill and Brecht's cold-blooded hero, he of the sharklike teeth, slashing throats and breaking hearts in Victorian London. Only it's not London: Derek McLane's starkly presentational set and Isaac Mizrahi's grab-bag costumes place the action in a limbo somewhere between the authors' 1920s European underbelly and the punky Lower East Side of today. Wallace Shawn has provided a colloquial new translation, full of expletives and intricate new rhymes. Elliott has fully adopted Brecht's alienation effect by staging Threepenny in a frankly theatrical style.

The concept of a nihilistic netherworld not unlike our own is fine. But Elliott can't settle on a consistent tone. The staging veers from Brechtian bleakness to Fosse-like flash. The only time these conflicting styles work together is when Jim Dale is onstage. As Mr. Peachum, the hypocritical con man with middle-class pretensions, he combines contempt for the audience with a desire to entertain—the latter illustrated through an over-the-top British music-hall panache unmatched by any of his fellow players. Cumming as Mack should be the center of the production, but he wants theatregoers to love him. By not embracing Mack's wickedness, Cumming cedes center stage to Dale.

The rest of the company is an equally mixed bag. Nellie McKay displays both the sweetness of Polly, Mr. Peachum's daughter and Mack's seemingly innocent bride, and the toughness that makes her a match for Mack and his gang of thieves. In the famous "Pirate Jenny," she shows both qualities brilliantly and simultaneously. Ana Gasteyer, decked out like Carmela Soprano in a sexy suit, plays Mrs. Peachum on one note: shrill. Brian Charles Rooney hits high notes of hilarity as a transvestite Lucy Brown, Polly's rival for Mack's affections. Among the ragtag chorus, Maureen Moore makes a fascinating impression as a black-eyed Wednesday Addams look-alike.

Pop songstress Cyndi Lauper is visually perfect as Jenny, the duplicitous yet tenderhearted whore. Looking like a diminutive Marlene Dietrich in frizzy blond wig and black bustier, she is the picture of compassion corrupted by years of immorality. But her acting doesn't match the depth of the silhouette she creates. Nevertheless, she and Cumming have one of the few vitally real numbers: "Ballad of the Pimp." This maudlin duet becomes a hypnotic tango as Jason Lyons' lighting casts the ensemble of ever-changing partners in shadows. Weill's bittersweet melody conveys the ache of innocence lost forever in a battered world. Pity the entire show couldn't have maintained this mesmerizing imagery.

> > > > > Reviewed by David Sheward

Signature Theatre Company

at the Peter Norton Space

Landscape of the Body is infuriating, fascinating, off-putting, and enthralling. It is not to be missed, especially in this terrific Signature Theatre production directed by Michael Greif. John Guare's 1977 play is part film noir send-up, part existential drama, part black comedy, part cabaret. The first part of the long first act (an hour and 20 minutes) is a little arch, as we encounter Betty (the luminous Lili Taylor) on a ferryboat with Capt. Marvin Holahan (Paul Sparks), who had interrogated her for the murder—and decapitation—of her own son six months earlier. The play then flashes back to the hostile interview.

It seems an odd cross between a tired episode of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit and a whimsical Woody Allen film: On the ferry, Holahan wears a Groucho Marx nose and moustache. The first musical interlude by Betty's dead sister, Rosalie (the entirely captivating Sherie Rene Scott), is jarring, despite the song's appeal. (Guare wrote the songs, with additional music by Michael Friedman.)

But stick with it. As the act progresses, the frame suits and enhances the strange, convoluted story: Betty had come to New York with her son Bert (sweet Stephen Scott Scarpulla) to bring Rosalie back to Bangor, Maine. After her sister is killed by a man on a 10-speed bicycle, Betty takes over her life. She works for Raulito (the charismatic Bernard White), a Cuban man who wears a gold lamé dress because it reminds him of his childhood dreams. Her new job involves tricking engaged couples into buying honeymoons. Meanwhile, 14-year-old Bert and his friend Donny (Paul Iacono) lure gay men into the apartment and bash them on the head for their watches and money.

It's a strange, vivid universe, in which the glamorous dead Rosalie's sophisticated, spirited emceeing is as knowing as that of the narrator in Our Town. The stakes are as human as anything: how to maintain some equilibrium on a fast-moving planet. Towards the end of Act I, Bert washes his mother's hair, and she emotionally recalls reading The Sensuous Woman to a dying friend. By play's end, Guare's odd, somewhat dated mélange achieves heartbreaking dramatic power.

> > > > > Reviewed by Gwen Orel

at the Promenade Theatre

So much is so good in Tryst, at the Promenade Theatre, that you wish the whole were as strong as the parts. Though it smolders more than it catches fire, this psychological melodrama by Karoline Leach is tense and suspenseful, a Hitchcockian exercise floating somewhere in between The Lodger and Suspicion.

The therapeutic thriller begins with thunderclaps, those standbys of melodramatic skullduggery. It's 1910, in an Edwardian England brimming with ageless class differences. George Love is a charming, seductive, vain, prevaricating cad who marries women at will. "I spend the night with them and make love to them with tenderness and consideration," he says, before absconding with their savings and whatever jewels he can heist.

His prey this night is Adelaide Pinchin, a plain-looking seamstress whose backstory includes an abusive father. Since George also comes from a dysfunctional family, we see them as damaged goods, each playing games with the other. Yet accepting the reality of who he is would be too dangerous for George, so Adelaide's unlocking the doors of his childhood proves her undoing.

Maxwell Caulfield, still muscular and handsome, gives a nuanced performance as George, alternating between Cockney and posh. George plays Adelaide like a fine instrument, though his undercurrent of anxiety and confusion is still apparent.

Amelia Campbell's Adelaide is so filled with longing that the character's growth from shy mouse to knowing woman is all of a piece. Campbell captures the joy, anger, and fear of a woman willing to throw doubts away in her yearning for love.

Joe Brancato's direction of the terse dialogue is gripping, balancing its various shades of deception and feeling. In this two-hander, the third character is the oppressive atmosphere superbly created by David Korins' set, Jeff Nellis' lighting, Alejo Vietti's costumes, and Johnna Doty's sound design.

> > > > > Reviewed by

at the Culture Project

A supremely intelligent play by Peter Morris, Guardians comprises two enthralling, fact-based monologues. One is inspired by the life of Lynndie England, the American G.I. who was photographed participating in the torture of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib. The other is derived from the smutty escapades of a British journalist involved in the Daily Mirror's publication of fake torture photos during the same month the Abu Ghraib scandal erupted. The play wants us to equate sensationalist journalism and pornography, while urging us to indict the largely economic "invisible forces" that are truly responsible for the atrocities committed in the name of American interests.

Though it may sound like a bleak affair, Guardians is so scintillatingly written, seductively performed by Katherine Moennig and Lee Pace, and crisply directed by Jason Moore that the evening is a delicious satirical diversion. Morris ingeniously injects sharp political commentary into the beguiling personal stories related by the two markedly opposite characters: the man, a self-described "urban homosexual" whose overarching goal in life is to become a newspaper columnist, and the woman, a moronic hillbilly who simply wants to get out of West Virginia.

Morris is an exceptionally skillful craftsman of dramatic juxtapositions. He has created an abundance of shared images that reappear and serve as equally potent, poetic pepper in each tale. He also has that prized ability to set horrific statements within humorous contexts, so we're continually shocked into reordering our mindsets as we find ourselves laughing uproariously at "inappropriate" times. For example, one of the "funniest" moments in Guardians is when we hear that as the young G.I. was being shipped off to Iraq, her mother's parting words to her daughter were "Make sure to send some pictures back."

> > > > Reviewed by Lisa Jo Sagolla

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