Richard Greenberg has been lucky with “Three Days of Rain,” and not just because Julia Roberts chose it for her Broadway debut in 2006. The play had not one but two smartly performed runs at London’s Donmar Warehouse in 1999, and it’s now in the West End with an outstanding cast directed by the exacting Jamie Lloyd. But even this production’s remarkable energy cannot disguise the fact that the work’s artful reverse chronology is both its intriguing hallmark and its downfall.
Sibling rivalries initially appear to be the subject, as Nan (Lyndsey Marshall) meets up with her disturbed brother Walker (James McAvoy) in a dusty, rundown Manhattan loft prior to the reading of their celebrated architect father Ned’s will. She’s furious with Walker for having been missing for a year, leaving her to deal with their father’s death and their hopeless mother, wittily described as “Zelda Fitzgerald’s less stable sister.”
More complex jealousies are disinterred as Walker becomes enraged upon discovering he has been partially disinherited in favor of childhood friend Pip (Nigel Harman), son of Ned’s architect partner Theo.
The triggers — and, possibly, the truth — behind their complex relationships (and those of their parents) lie in Ned’s journal, which Walker discovers, and, in an act of self-dramatization, burns. “God damn you,” cries Nan, in a terrific first act curtain line, “now we’ll never know anything.” The play’s trick, however, is its second-act contradiction of that statement, showing the past with the same actors playing the characters’ parents.
Information previously frustratingly withheld is now revealed in the manner of a slow-burn thriller. But even though the second act is charged with tension, it underlines its absence in the character-driven but almost subtext-free first half.
Greenberg’s construction problems notwithstanding, Lloyd’s impressive production makes the best possible case for the play, not least via the design department.
Music and a city soundscape add further authenticity to Soutra Gilmour’s gray , disused Manhattan loft set. Gilmour even completes the interior with a ceiling, thus providing a literal and metaphorical crack through which lighting designer Jon Clark shines a single fractured beam to dramatize the space.
Clark and Lloyd use side-lighting to lower and raise the temperature, and not just in the effective rain-drenched sequences at the front of the stage, alluded to in the play’s title. The sunny warmth stealing over the second act is in powerful contrast to the cheerlessness cast over the initial proceedings via ghostly daylight looming in through Gimour’s tall windows.
That depth of eloquent atmosphere is a springboard for the thrillingly balanced performances.
McAvoy eschews the sympathy-seeking showing off of pain that actors tend to use to play Walker. Vibrant, energetic and fierce, he’s like a bipolar man on a frightening upswing. Even when handed the scene-stealing device of Ned’s stutter (which he handles effortlessly), he affectingly uses other elements of the character to show the architect’s struggle between hope and reticence.
Harman is virtuosic, finding ceaseless comedy in untroubled Pip’s self-awareness as a successful TV actor whose main virtue is how good he looks shirtless. He’s the straight man in every sense, but in a manner typical of all three performers, adds contradictory texture to the role by investing Theo with an almost camp buoyancy.
As Nan and Lina, Marshall never stops listening and watches the other characters like a hawk. As a result, she’s mesmerizing. In startling opposition to her long-suffering, tautly held Nan, she appears to change shape as (self)destructive Lina, her flawless Southern drawl seeming to emanate from the seductive swaying of her body.
Lloyd’s excavation and guiding of moments of tension and release is genuinely arresting. The resulting performances are so interdependent and minutely calibrated that when only two of them are onstage, you miss the third. The only reason why acting of this rare caliber doesn’t reach a satisfying emotional climax is that the play’s self-consciousness robs the cast of the opportunity.