Three Days of Rain

Richard Greenberg is a first-class writer, and his new play, "Three Days of Rain," brims with a savvy, intelligent wit and richly conceived characters. And it's acted with requisite sensitivity by an accomplished cast under Evan Yionoulis' astute direction. But for all that, it remains a naggingly unsatisfying work.

Cast: John Slattery (Walker/Ned), Patricia Clarkson (Nan/Lina), Jon Tenney (Pip/Theo), Julia Pearlstein (Pia).

Richard Greenberg is a first-class writer, and his new play, “Three Days of Rain,” brims with a savvy, intelligent wit and richly conceived characters. And it’s acted with requisite sensitivity by an accomplished cast under Evan Yionoulis’ astute direction. But for all that, it remains a naggingly unsatisfying work.

The problem may lie in the play’s structure, which is in turn tied to its themes, chief among which is the idea that the shroud of silence one generation uses to lay to rest painful truths may end up causing, not mitigating, immense grief for the next.

In the first act, the heirs of a pair of renowned architects gather for a reading of Ned Janeway’s will. Janeway’s son, Walker (John Slattery), hopes desperately to inherit the “Janeway House,” the masterpiece of his father and partner Theo Wexler’s achievement. He’s hoping it will salve the pain of other legacies from his parents that his sister, Nan (Patricia Clarkson), avoided: a manic-depressive streak inherited from his disturbed mother, Lina, and, perhaps most painfully, a feeling of unworthiness bred in him by the almost pathological reticence of his father.

His father’s maddening silence isn’t even broken with the discovery of his journal dating from the 1960s, somewhat contrivedly found by Walker in the old studio where the partners once lived (though Greenberg is too smart to let the contrivance lie: He has Walker speak sarcastically of “the inevitable journal”). The first entry, at a time of crucial importance for the young architects, contains a single phrase: “Three days of rain.”

Mysteries deepen when Wexler’s son, Pip (Jon Tenney), arrives — Pip’s a complacent, charismatic charmer who is everything Walker is not (happy, chiefly) — and the reading of Janeway’s will reveals a legacy that only furthers Walker’s sense of isolation.

In act two, the same actors play their forebears at the time of that elliptical journal entry, with Slattery now playing Walker and Nan’s father, Ned, Tenney playing Theo and Clarkson as the Southern belle Lina. Our first discovery is that the Janeway children’s knowledge of their parents’ union — Walker called it a “calculation against loneliness,” an event that took place “because they were the last ones left in the room” — is drastically off the mark. In fact, it may be the key, forever locked in the past, both to the first act’s surprise legacy, and to the poisonous silence that so crippled Walker’s life.

A less sophisticated playwright — a worse one, to put it simply — might have tacked on a third act, in which the mysteries of the past are laid bare in the present and wounds are healed at last. Greenberg is far too tasteful for that, but he’s also too tasteful — almost as austere with emotion, one might say, as Ned Janeway was with words — to supply much in the way of dramatic momentum for a play whose fire seems to burn throughout at a low flame. (When Theo says, in one of the play’s few nakedly emotional moments, “I’ve hurt everyone I care about,” it’s hard to know what he’s getting so worked up about.)

The characters in the first act are haunted by the past, so it may be impossible to avoid its being top-heavy with exposition, much of which is communicated directly to the audience. But the second act ends, almost perversely, without the climax it calls out for, the final reckoning between two men over a stolen muse.

That no key characters cross over from one act to the next makes for a sense that we’re watching not a single play, but two truncated ones, a feeling that is exacerbated by the play’s abrupt ending. Nevertheless, both acts contain much elegant writing — a haunting monologue about the discrepancy between our intentions and what comes to pass is particularly good — and many lines of great wit, as when a character is nailed in a single phrase as being someone who reads “expurgated Jane Austen.”

The actors are first-rate. As Lina, Clarkson has both the frankness and coyness of a Southern woman’s charm down pat. Slattery gives a jittery intensity to Walker that seems an explosion of some deep anxiousness that in Ned is expressed only in a painful stutter. And Tenney’s performance is marked by an ease that fits like a glove the surface charms of his two characters.

But they don’t quite succeed in infusing this always-admirable play with the emotional texture that’s somehow lacking. Greenberg’s scrupulous unwillingness to connect the emotional dots for the audience may be aesthetically correct for this play and its characters, but he’s taking a risk that audiences won’t feel inclined to do the work themselves.

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Three Days of Rain

South Coast Repertory Second Stage, Costa Mesa, Calif.; 161 seats; $39 top

Production: A South Coast Repertory presentation of a play in two acts by Richard Greenberg. Directed by Evan Yionoulis.

Creative: Set, Christopher Barreca; costumes, Candice Cain; lighting, Donald Holder; sound, Garth Hemphill; production manager, Michael Mora; stage manager, Randall K. Lum. Artistic director, Martin Benson; producing artistic director, David Emmes. Opened, reviewed March 9, 1997. Running time: 2 HOURS, 20 MIN.

Cast: Cast: John Slattery (Walker/Ned), Patricia Clarkson (Nan/Lina), Jon Tenney (Pip/Theo), Julia Pearlstein (Pia).

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