Three Days of Rain

Steppenwolf Theatre Company

By Adam Langer

A Richard Greenberg play in town raises the collective IQ of characters on Chicago stages by at least 20 points. In his new Three Days of Rain, it’s just a matter of everyday conversation for a character to observe that “abstractions are turning into facts very quickly these days.” And unlike Wallace Shawn’s dyspeptic blowhards and Woody Allen’s Rilke-quoting poseurs, Greenberg’s erudite New Yorkers are not meant to inspire either awe or ridicule; erudition is a defining aspect of their characters, equally a blessing and a curse. Their intelligence rarely does them any good; their Ivy League educations and big vocabularies can’t save them or even help them understand themselves better.

For better and worse, Greenberg is an old-fashioned playwright, a wit who might have been more at home during Broadway’s heyday, trading gibes with Philip Barry or Cole Porter. His plays–glib, romantic, and balanced–speak with the voice of one weaned on Arthur Miller, Maxwell Anderson, and the New Yorker of long ago. To see a Greenberg play is to be nostalgically transported to a time of opening-night parties in swank Upper East Side apartments where women in sequined gowns sipped martinis while lolling against a grand piano. And though Greenberg has addressed the present as well as the past, he usually skips the tumult of the 60s. Since his first major success in the 80s–the rather mechanically topical Eastern Standard–he’s penned a new libretto for Pal Joey and explored the lives of a quartet of characters in 1959 in his moving 1992 play The American Plan.

Now he turns back to 1960 in Three Days of Rain, trying to find lessons for disaffected Manhattanites of the late 90s. Navigating his usual terrain, he offers a contemplative comedy about unfulfilled promise among the New York aristocracy, for the most part making the struggles of his wealthy but emotionally crippled figures relevant and compelling. Three Days of Rain recalls the family legacies in both August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson and Arthur Miller’s The Price, but here the issue is not whether to honor one’s history by refusing to sell a piano or to maintain one’s status at the cost of self-respect. In Greenberg’s play, the question is who will inherit either millions of dollars or a landmark house, also worth millions.

Like The American Plan, Three Days of Rain is set both in the present and in the past. The first act takes place in 1995 in the squalid Manhattan apartment that served as the office of the architectural team of Janeway and Wexler in the early 60s, just before they became phenomenally successful. Three heirs to the Janeway-Wexler fortune are meeting here before going to a lawyer to learn the details of their inheritances. Walker Janeway–as his somewhat too obviously Waspy name suggests–is your typically troubled child of boarding-school privilege (an older version of the wealthy young beach-bum protagonist of Greenberg’s Life Under Water). His sister Nan is a member of the upper-class mainstream, married and living in Boston with two kids. Pip Wexler is Walker’s best friend from childhood and Nan’s old sweetheart, a successful and well-adjusted daytime-TV actor.

The play begins with too much exposition–and in Steppenwolf’s Chicago premiere, directed by Anna D. Shapiro, a decidedly shrill tone. Though Tracy Letts does an effective job of conveying Walker’s fierce wit and intelligence, Amy Morton plays Nan on one note of rage and pain, her face like a clenched fist. Nan carries the burden of being young, painfully wealthy, and neurotic–and of playing Walker’s straight man (her witty brother chides her for forsaking Manhattan by remarking, “Boston is only a city if you’re a swan boat”). Ian Barford is a smart, amiable Pip, and his presence distracts from the melodramatic sibling tension, which until his entrance is mitigated only by Greenberg’s great skill at literate one-liners.

Walker discovers an old journal of his recently deceased father’s underneath a mattress. This elliptical, inarticulate document filled with brief, unconnected phrases is for Walker a key to the past–to his distant father and crazy mother. Walker’s personal “Rosebud,” which he uses to reconstruct a version of the past, is his father’s first journal entry: “April third to April fifth: three days of rain.” Walker assumes that the bluntness and apparent lack of emotion in his father’s writings are further evidence of insensitivity and detachment, coming to a series of conclusions that help him excuse his own failures and blame his father for perceived misfortune. But in Greenberg’s plays, to gather evidence about the past is not to understand it any better.

The second act, set in 1960, also begins on a strident note but soon settles into a mood of melancholy, nostalgia, and remorse. Set during the three days of rain that inspired Ned Janeway’s first journal entry, it features him, Pip’s father–the ferocious, conceited Theo–and Theo’s girlfriend Lina, who spends a crucial evening with Ned.

Ned proves to be a stuttering introvert, and Letts portrays with painful accuracy his shyness and awkwardness, which his son later interprets as cold insensitivity. Playing Lina, Morton displays a maturity and range unimaginable from her performance as Nan. But regrettably Barford plays Pip’s father as a bellicose, undifferentiated egomaniac. Though the second act ends on a positive note, it’s muted by what we know happens decades later, revealed in the first act. Still, Greenberg fails to show how a single romantic and artistic moment in 1960 led to the grim alienation of the characters in 1995, though he offers a reasonable number of hints. But leaving it largely up to the audience to guess what went wrong over a period of 35 years is an authorial ploy somewhere between Pinter-esque cleverness and just plain laziness. One suspects that if Greenberg had dramatized the relations between Walker, Pip, Nan, and their parents through the 60s, 70s, and 80s, they would have seemed more obvious and hackneyed than intriguing and mysterious.

Three Days of Rain might have been a mere pastiche of Miller, Wilson, and Job Robin Baitz’s The Substance of Fire were it not for Letts’s performance, Greenberg’s intelligent writing, and Steppenwolf’s beautifully designed production. However familiar Greenberg’s setup and transparent his plot, his scrumptious dialogue is always a pleasure. Watching one of his plays is like listening to a witty, charismatic person hold forth on a banal topic. And Todd Rosenthal’s set uses rainfall to greater effect than any other production I’ve seen, including the overrated Grapes of Wrath. It falls upon a skylight. It sprays down on the actors. It runs down the brick Manhattan streets, creating just the right sense of beauty and regret and, more than even the wittiest and most astute lines, capturing the mournful sense of a world gone by.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Three Days of Rain theater still by Michael Brosilow.