I’ve worked with a few actors who’ve been addled by fame; they make for lovely anecdotes.
It would be nice, in a revolting way, if I could tell you about the titanic meltdown Julia Roberts had while acting in my play “Three Days of Rain.” The violent tirades, the hurled props, the abused feelings.
Sadly, she was impeccable.
Nobody wants to read about a vast star’s good behavior. The famous exist so that we can enjoy their success for a while then indulge our schadenfreude when they, seemingly inevitably, have their smash-ups.
God knows I expected something would happen: some small fit of pique, some egregious bit of behavior indicating that her world and ours occupied widely separate orbits. After all, she’d been a star since her teens and acting onstage is grueling, particularly when you haven’t done it before and are coming to it from a film career that has been marked by a failure to fail. She’s a keenly intelligent, witty woman; she must have known everyone would be gunning for her. And, I’ve been assured, we weren’t a success. But — pace the schadenfreudenistas — we had a very good time.
A strange time, too. Such a quiet play and such a noisy event. In the rehearsal room, I lost track of what was going to happen. Things became so normal so quickly. Joe Mantello, the director, has a Henry Higgins-ish penchant for treating all people the same way. The cast was made up of charming people: Paul Rudd and Bradley Cooper in addition to Julia. The experience was more interesting than real life in the way it always is when talented actors gather to work on a script. Once I looked over to our leading lady and sincerely thought “God, she’s sensationally charismatic; she ought to be a movie star.”
Reality didn’t set in — by which I mean become completely suspended — until performances started on Broadway on April 19, 2006.
Crowds gathered across the street to wait for the star to emerge from the stage door. I’m told that longer plays at neighboring theaters had their climaxes ruined nightly by the cheering. A large section of the audience was made up of people who had never been to the theater before, and I’m including “Cats.” One guy found his rear-orchestra seat unsatisfactory and decided it would be all right to view the play squatting at the head of the aisle. People held up signs proclaiming “We Love You, Julia!” (I haven’t done the research but I’m guessing Cherry Jones’ fans find ways to express their admiration that don’t involve oak tag paper.) At the final performance, dozens of people walked out half a minute before the final curtain, unable to take another second of this crappy play in which the actors just kept talking.
In a way, I don’t blame them. The build-up had been so enormous, so hormonally charged, that anything short of having Pretty Woman enter on a gold elephant was bound to disappoint.
Through it all — and I’m sorry about this but I’m going to praise the giant movie star again — she was intrepid, and steady in surprising ways. The stage manager reports indicated that her performance was absolutely reliable throughout the run — energized, shape-maintaining, secure. This is one of the hardest things to achieve; it can elude even the most seasoned stage veterans.
My favorite response to the production came from a wonderful American playwright (who would probably not mind my identifying him, but I haven’t asked so I’ll just call him a Wonderful American Playwright) who saw two previews in the same week. He left me a message in which he noted how much her performance had grown in a matter of days and then made a lovely prediction: He thought she would grow into her generation’s Claudette Colbert, a radiant screen actor who became an equally enchanting stage star. I wouldn’t be surprised if this happened. She seemed to have a good time. She seemed to thrive on how difficult, how dangerous it was and how brave she had to be to take it on. She seemed like a happy woman.
Editor’s note: For the record, Julia Robert’s performance in “Three Days of Rain” took its knocks but did win kudos from Gotham’s two major female critics. USA Today’s Elysa Gardner found Roberts “credible, compelling and sweetly funny. And she manages a tender chemistry with each of her costars.” And Newsday’s Linda Winer opined, “Roberts has the gift of being able to seem grave and bright at the same time.” Winer later said: “I think my colleagues, most of whom are male, were upset she wasn’t doing her Julia Roberts twinkle routine from the movies. She was, in fact, playing the character.”