The sins of the fathers (and mothers) make for bittersweet elegy in "Three Days of Rain," Richard Greenberg's poignant, unsettling new play. As much mystery as family drama, "Rain" demonstrates in heartbreaking detail how little we know about the people who most shape our lives.

The sins of the fathers (and mothers) make for bittersweet elegy in “Three Days of Rain,” Richard Greenberg’s poignant, unsettling new play. As much mystery as family drama, “Rain” demonstrates in heartbreaking detail how little we know about the people who most shape our lives.

Essentially two interrelated one-act playlets, “Rain” at first presents three adults — Walker (John Slattery), his sister Nan (Patricia Clarkson) and their lifelong friend Pip (Bradley Whitford) — reuniting to divvy up the legacy (financial and otherwise) of their late fathers, who were partners in a successful and famous architecture firm.

The characters’ names are more than a little telling. Walker is an aimless, emotionally unstable man who quite literally spends his life walking the world, settling nowhere and disappearing for months on end. His return to Manhattan prompts a visit from Nan, the loving but exasperated sister who, as her name implies, is more caregiver than sibling, and Pip, an affable soap opera star who, like the Dickens character of the same name, is about to receive an unexpected inheritance.

Meeting in the dilapidated, long-vacant downtown Manhattan apartment where their fathers, then young, struggling architects, were once roommates, the trio is shown both before and after a conference with lawyers in which they learn who gets what from the considerable estate of Walker and Nan’s father, Ned. On top of the list: the world-famous Long Island house designed by their fathers and considered a work of late 20th century architectural genius (think Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater).

By turns speaking to one another and directly to the audience, Walker, Nan and Pip struggle to understand the will, the parents and their own lives, no easy task given the facades constructed by the earlier generation.

Ned, it seems, was an unloving, uncommunicative man, his unbalanced wife, Lina, “like Zelda Fitzgerald’s less stable sister,” in Walker’s words. Theo, Pip’s father and Ned’s partner, was, apparently, the architectural visionary responsible for the firm’s success.

Starved for insight and understanding of his forebears, Walker studies a journal, written by his father and found hidden in the vacant apartment. This, too, is no easy task: A man of few words, Ned sums up several pivotal days in 1960 with the cryptic phrase “three days of rain.”

Try as he might, Walker will never understand the reference, but the audience will. The entire second act flashes back to 1960, with the cast portraying the previous generation. Needless to say, the family myths to which Walker, Nan and Pip cling are far from the truth.

Though talky and, particularly in the first act, a bit slow-moving, Greenberg’s play is filled with graceful passages that are by turns melancholy, harrowing and, often, quite funny. Nan’s recollection of one of her mother’s breakdowns is particularly haunting, all the more so when we later see her mother in youth, an emotionally delicate Southern woman straight out of Tennessee Williams territory.

Greenberg apparently has streamlined his play from earlier stagings (one character has been eliminated), and director Evan Yionoulis finds just the right tone of sorrow and inexhaustible hope. She pulls fine performances from her very good cast, particularly in the better, more poignant second half.

The play fully deserves the top-notch production it’s given by the Manhattan Theater Club, with Chris Barreca’s convincingly rendered Soho apartment, Candice Cain’s dead-on costumes and Donald Holder’s rainy-day lighting. For a play that so movingly illustrates the difference between house and home, “Three Days of Rain” has found both.

Three Days of Rain

Manhattan Theater Club's Stage I, N.Y.; 299 seats; $47.50 top

Production

A Manhattan Theater Club presentation of a play in two acts by Richard Greenberg. Directed by Evan Yionoulis.

Creative

Set, Chris Barreca; costumes, Candice Cain; lighting, Donald Holder; sound, Red Ramona; original music, Mike Yionoulis; production stage manager, Roy Harris. MTC artistic director, Lynne Meadow. Opened Nov. 11, 1997. Reviewed Nov. 6; Running time: 2 HOURS, 10 MIN.

Cast

Cast: John Slattery (Walker/Ned), Patricia Clarkson (Nan/Lina), Bradley Whitford (Pip/Theo).

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