Considering all the noise surrounding the theatrical debut of the world's biggest female movie star, what's most remarkable about Julia Roberts' appearance in "Three Days of Rain" is how low-key it is. Rather than choose a showy vehicle for her B'way bow, the actress has opted for a quiet three-hander.

Considering all the noise surrounding the theatrical debut of the world’s biggest female movie star — saturation media coverage, box office frenzy, fans mobbing the stage door — what’s most remarkable about Julia Roberts’ appearance in “Three Days of Rain” is how low-key it is. Rather than choose a showy vehicle for her Broadway bow, the actress with the mile-wide smile has opted for a quiet three-hander, mostly conceding the spotlight to the more nuanced characters played by her male co-stars. But Richard Greenberg’s 1997 play is not entirely well served by Roberts or vice versa.

What Roberts brings is irrefutable evidence of what makes her a star. Even in some unflattering costumes, onstage as much as onscreen, you can’t take your eyes off her — the infectious warmth, the radiant grin that erupts out of seriousness and goes on forever, the vulnerability, the disarming physical mix of awkwardness and poise. Those qualities are what most ticket buyers for the sellout 12-week engagement are paying to see. But even the most blinding charisma can’t quite substitute for texture. Ultimately, Roberts is unable to flesh out the indistinct contours of an unsatisfyingly written role.

Greenberg’s play is an odd duck — intimate yet emotionally distant and without a resonating payoff. An artful reflection on how parents and children misunderstand one another, it explores how relationship patterns and personality imprints are echoed, sketching refracted mirror images of the three points of a triangle over two generations.

Even in Greenberg’s more problematic works like “The Violet Hour,” the gracefulness of his writing, its uncommon erudition and wit, couple the joyful musicality of speech with intellectual cleverness in a way few other contemporary playwrights can touch. But while it’s admirable that “Three Days of Rain” avoids tidy conclusions, there’s also something frustrating about Greenberg’s refusal to fill in the emotional blanks.

The mega-wattage of Joe Mantello’s sleek production — with its high-profile star, gorgeous design and lighting and movie-ish interstitial music — exposes the play’s fragility.

Santo Loquasto has fashioned a breathtaking downtown Manhattan loft space, with battered walls and enormous, grimy windows filtering soft light from the noisy street outside. In the first act, set in 1995, the loft is occupied by Walker (Paul Rudd), the troubled son of celebrated architect Ned Janeway. Recently returned from going AWOL for a year and missing his father’s funeral, Walker is joined by his married sister Nan (Roberts) for the reading of the will, along with Pip (Bradley Cooper), the soap-star son of Ned’s former partner, Theo Wexler.

Much of the conflict swirls around the legacy of Janeway House, an iconic Long Island building that the unsettled Walker hopes will finally provide him with a home. But the building is left to Pip, freshening Walker’s resentment toward his father, whose uncommunicative nature is revealed in a recently discovered journal. Significant personal events such as Theo’s terminal illness are dealt with in terse entries; most maddening is the cryptic notation “three days of rain.”

Looking initially uncomfortable as the more uptight of her two characters, Roberts figures as a wry observer, wrestling with conflicted feelings of responsibility and anger toward Walker. Rudd bristles with the nervous energy and defensive hostility of a manic-depressive yet remains sympathetic. And Cooper, whose primary credits are in TV and film, has a real magnetic spark onstage, making much of Pip’s self-deprecating assessments of his acting talent, his intellect and his unrelenting cheeriness.

With a mix of dialogue exchanges and direct address from each of the three hyperarticulate characters, act one establishes their received wisdom about their parents. Walker and Nan’s mother is deeply unbalanced (“She’s sort of like Zelda Fitzgerald’s less stable sister”); their parents married “because by 1960 they had reached a certain age and they were the last ones left in the room”; and Theo was considered the genius, responsible for putting the architectural partnership on the map.

Rewinding to 1960, with the same derelict space now warmly inhabited, act two sets about revising those notions in ways that Walker, Nan and Pip will never grasp, showing also how their parents’ secrecy and failure to communicate has burdened them.

Roberts now plays Lina, a Southern belle who invites complications in her bumpy relationship with Theo (Cooper) and seems taken aback by the unexpected ease of it when she falls into romance with stuttering, reticent Ned (Rudd) during the aforementioned prolonged downpour.

The rich atmospheric effect of the rain beating down outside the windows, on the fire escape and across the downstage area as Theo wanders the streets (fittingly, there’s a rain credit in the Playbill) helps pull the audience into the play — even as Greenberg’s writing remains elliptical and Mantello’s direction fails to coax sufficient subtext from the cast.

Part of the problem is a basic imbalance among the characters. Greenberg is far more invested in the relationship between the two men — in Ned’s feelings of unworthiness for having taken Theo’s girl and being the creative force behind their defining project — than in Lina. Even when Theo is offstage in the second act, he still drives most of the action.

Rudd is an accomplished stage actor given plenty to work with. He creates two distinct characters out of Walker and Ned both emotionally and physically — the former messy and volatile, the latter neat and cautious. Cooper negotiates subtle shifts to show the insecurities and frustrations eating away at an ambitious, seemingly confident man.

While we see evidence she was an early drinker and hear her describe waking most days in a “brown study,” Lina seems too unencumbered to make her outcome plausible; the seeds of her madness are not adequately planted. In a role originated by Patricia Clarkson, Roberts has poignant moments but her inconsistent Southern accent only adds to a nagging shortage of depth in the approach to the character of actress, playwright and director. She’s a beguiling but opaque presence where an insightful character study is required.

Three Days of Rain

Bernard B. Jacobs Theater; 1,074 seats; $101.25 top

Production

A Marc Platt, David Stone, Shubert Organization presentation of a play in two acts by Richard Greenberg. Directed by Joe Mantello.

Creative

Sets and costumes, Santo Loquasto; lighting, Paul Gallo; original music and sound, David Van Tieghem; rain, Jauchem & Meeh; hair, Lyndell Quiyou; production stage manager, William Joseph Barnes. Opened April 19, 2006. Reviewed April 17. Running time: 2 HOURS, 15 MIN.

Cast

Walker, Ned - Paul Rudd Nan, Lina - Julia Roberts Pip, Theo - Bradley Cooper

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