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Nan and Walker, though they’re the spoiled children of one of the world’s most celebrated architects in Richard Greenberg’s expectation-demolishing drama Three Days of Rain, don’t have many nice things to say about their father.
Nan (Jane Beard) is a seemingly solid, if tightly wrapped, woman whose nerves fray instantly when she has to deal with her family. Walker (Marty Lodge) is a gay slacker who talks in streams of non sequiturs and disappears to points unknown for years at a time. Neither is miserable, exactly, but both qualify as damaged goods emotionally, and they trace their neuroses to their distant dad.
To hear them tell it, Ned Janeway was chilly, silent to the point of catatonia, and—his celebrity notwithstanding—quite possibly talentless. His architectural work, they note dryly, was never much good after his partner, Theo, died. And, as they see it, the disappointment that warped their father’s life—and theirs—is what utterly destroyed Lina, the mother they dismiss uncharitably as “Zelda Fitzgerald’s less stable sister.” Walker’s summation of what led these two wounded creatures to marry was that “by 1960, they had reached a certain age and they were the last ones left in the room.”
Nan and Walker have now been brought together for the first time in years by the reading of Ned’s will, a ceremony from which they hope to wrest a bit of closure, something they haven’t been able to wrest from a typically unrevealing diary in Ned’s hand that Walker has just discovered. It’s breathtakingly cryptic. The only entry for the weekend Ned and Theo created their greatest masterwork is the four-word phrase that gives the play its title.
Also present for the will reading is Theo’s son, Pip, because one of the items to be bequeathed is that masterwork: the Janeway House, a light, airily designed ’60s structure that made Ned and Theo the most revered young architects to surface since Frank Lloyd Wright. Pip (David Fendig), a handsome soap-opera star for whom everything has come easily, is as sunnily untroubled as his childhood buddies are neurotic, though he might also be said to have a couple of parental issues on the back burner.
Now, it’s a given that parents will be slandered on stage for as long as they persist in giving birth to playwrights. But Rain’s elder generation has an intriguing ally in Greenberg. The author doesn’t make the senior Janeways any less neurotic than their offspring, but in a truly startling second act he does insist that children, though shaped by their folks, are likely to be seriously in the dark as to what makes them tick. And likely to head down blind alleys when trying to figure them out.
Nan and Walker enter one such blind alley upon discovering that Pip had a chatty, easy relationship with the father they found so distant. That revelation leads them to conclusions that do give them each a degree of closure. But after intermission, the play leaps back 35 years to those three rain-soaked days of artistic and emotional ferment, and we see how seriously they’ve misread the past. Not only do we learn who Ned, Lina, and Theo really were, but because the author has called for double-casting the actors—each plays his or her character’s own parent in the second act—echoes of fathers in sons and of mother in daughter are lent all sorts of extra reverberations.
Greenberg was nominated for the 1997 Pulitzer Prize for Three Days of Rain, and from Jerry Whiddon’s oddly cast but sharply acted production, it’s easy to see why. The author may not be plowing new dramatic territory—Tom Stoppard has long delighted in having characters misinterpret historical evidence, as D.C. audiences recently witnessed in Arcadia, Travesties, and Indian Ink—but Greenberg gives the “obtuse historian” ploy a giddy, familial spin all his own. He’s such a witty, articulate writer that even when he’s just brushing in exposition, his dialogue sparkles.
You’d be hard pressed to describe the Round House actors as typecast, but they’re all pretty splendid as they hurl themselves around the cramped Manhattan apartment that Jos. B. Musumeci Jr. has created for their angst-filled revels. Lodge chatters away acidly as Walker, looking unkempt and sounding vague, then finds entirely different variations on those same qualities as the vagabond’s stuttering dad. Beard’s rigid, matronly Nan shifts gears just as smoothly to become an engagingly bipolar, Tallulah-voiced Lina. And, although Fendig doesn’t have the chiseled jaw of a soap-opera star, his Pip is a persuasively empty vessel, and his self-doubting Theo is just the right catalyst for the author’s Act 2 surprises.
I confess I didn’t much like the D.C. incarnations I’ve seen of earlier Greenberg plays. Source Theatre’s mounting of his Broadway hit Eastern Standard made the author’s observations about homelessness and yupster hypocrisy feel about as substantial as a pop ditty’s lyrics; Studio’s The American Plan became a talky, inchoate blur in my memory within hours after I’d seen it. By contrast, Three Days of Rain strikes me as brisk, authoritative, and altogether mature, the product of an erudite, emotionally probing writer at the top of his form. Greenberg isn’t making broad statements about classes of people this time out; he’s examining, with intelligence and no little humor, how a pair of privileged but unhappy adults could invest so much emotion in familial struggles that they’d completely misjudge the forces that shaped their lives. He’s painting on a much smaller canvas than he’s used in the past, but, as often happens, by going specific he’s tapped into something that feels broader and more universal.
Speaking of universal, I remember catching Marcel Marceau’s act when I was in grade school and marveling at the way this French guy in chalk-white makeup, without ever saying a word, managed to capture all my neighbors on stage. There was the man whose dog pulled him around the block every day; there were the two frowning old ladies who sat knitting and talking at the library. Also the gardener down the street who walked with a stoop, and the mom with the baby carriage, and the kids who skootered around our driveway.
Marceau’s still capturing them—not to mention birds, and helium balloons, and the sway of an ocean liner on the high sea—and I’m still marveling, though I’m now a bit more savvy about the techniques he employs. The man has been, for at least the last half-century, the world’s most famous, most talented, and most widely imitated mime. Other people have learned his tricks—how to turn their hands into butterflies, or walk without moving forward, or trap themselves in invisible glass boxes—but tricks are only part of what makes Marceau so astonishing.
He’s a storyteller first and foremost, and he is nowhere more amazing than when he’s establishing, in a routine called “Soliloquy of Three Lost Souls,” that he can tell the same exact story about love and loss four times in quick succession, using precisely the same mimetic vocabulary, and create four entirely different impressions. No, I take that back. That is amazing, but he’s even better as a mask maker who keeps trying on a series of masks—frowns, smiles, alarmed faces, goofy faces—until one of them gets stuck.
When I saw Marceau again last week, I remembered from my school days the increasing speed of the changes as he tried on the masks, briefly freezing his face in different expressions (though I’d forgotten that between each one, he allowed a quick glimpse of the mask maker’s own blank visage). And I remembered that even with his face frozen in a broad comic grin, once he got stuck in the Mask of Comedy, he could still register frustration, fear, and desperation. But my memory had simplified that feat until it was cartoonish. The real sketch is heartbreaking. Marceau doesn’t just get frantic when he gets stuck, he sinks slowly into genuine despair, a rictus animating his features as his limbs go limp and his soul gives up the ghost.
There is, you should know in advance, an unhurried quality to his act—a sensation of leisureliness that probably has more to do with audiences than with Marceau’s pacing. His art requires the painstaking creation of props in midair, and there’s no question that the carving of space into balloons, birdcages, and people is being managed at Ford’s Theatre with the same deliberateness and care that he’s always given those tasks. We, on the other hand, have gotten lazier in the last few decades about the task of watching. We’re accustomed, in this MTV age, to being addressed in a visual shorthand that has nothing to do with the craft of pantomime. If you can’t relax into a less frenetic mind-set, you’re likely to find some portions of his show pretty slow going.
Still, the man’s an artist—a 20th-century legend, and an irreplaceable stage presence—and let’s be frank: He’s 76. How many more tours do you suppose he’s going to do? CP