This Old House

Call it sleep: Ned and Lina (Matt Sciple and Carolyn Pool) in a moment of repose from Three Days of Rain

Three Days of Rain
Park Square Theatre

You'll notice it first in a stray gesture or familiar turn of phrase--something your father was fond of saying, perhaps, or a certain way your mother had of twisting her hair when nervous. In so many small ways, we are our parents' children--like it or not--and the lives we lead are mere codas to the stories they began long ago. For the grown children in Richard Greenberg's Three Days of Rain, the legacy of their famous architect parents is a house constructed of glass and light, and a 30-year-old secret buried beneath a mattress.

Greenberg's play, which is making its regional debut at Park Square Theatre after an off-Broadway run in 1997, is divided into two separate but intertwined stories. The first takes place in the present. The second is set in 1960, and replays an episode in the lives of the characters' parents. As in all of Greenberg's work, the milieu is the overeducated and oversensitive elite of Manhattan society--a world that might be familiar to both Woody Allen and Jay McInerney.

Act One introduces us to the children. Walker Janeway (Matt Sciple) has just reappeared from hiding in Italy and taken up residence in his father's old Manhattan loft. The bare wood floors and partially exposed brick walls betray the apartment's long disuse, yet Walker has settled in among the collected dust and relics. In an aside to the audience, he sets the scene: For his entire adult life, Walker has played the prodigal son, disappearing for years at a time when life has become complicated. Now, with his father dead for more than a year, he has returned to claim his inheritance, including his father's celebrated architectural tour de force, the Janeway House.

The apartment itself reflects the emptiness of Walker's migratory existence. The stage is tilted toward us and bathed in shadow, and the exterior wall has been sliced away to create the effect of looking down into a shoe box. Into the oppressive gloom of the loft steps Nan (Carolyn Pool), Walker's sister and the ostensibly "sane" member of the family. She is lucid compared to the obtuse Walker, but she is also damaged--a beautiful, cold creature who can barely summon the emotion to greet the brother whom she has long presumed dead. Present as well is Pip Wexler, an affable soap-opera hunk and the son of another famous architect who was the original partner of Walker's father. Actor Jeff Nelson wisely plays Pip for laughs, and his naive charm lightens the otherwise ponderous musings of the Janeway siblings. In the first act's best moment, Pip waxes grandiloquent on the Oedipal cycle: "Don't murder anyone and don't date older women. Just do the fucking math."

Once Walker discovers his father's cryptic diary beneath a mattress, however, even Pip's effervescence is eclipsed by the growing mystery surrounding the Janeway House. Who actually designed the masterpiece, and why did the elder Janeway bequeath it to Pip rather than to one of his own children? "Do things really stay secret that long?" Pip muses wistfully. They do, this play suggests, and the secret is not nearly as simple as we first expect.

As a rule, family infighting is best left to courtrooms and daytime TV. The script's tone vacillates uneasily between flippancy and pathos, and it is frequently a challenge to take the youthful Janeways' witty barbs for actual conversation. Nevertheless, under the direction of Guthrie Theater actor Richard S. Iglewski, Park Square's production manages to bring out the caustic humor of Greenberg's script without overplaying the subtler elegiac moments. Building with the brooding intensity of a summer rainstorm, the action shifts back 30 years to the sins of the fathers.

As the lights come up on the second half of the play, we see the dusty loft transformed into a cramped but livable apartment. In an inspired bit of stage illusion, set designer Dean Holzman turns an opaque mirror into a window, complete with rain lashing on the glass from outside. These are the mysterious days of rain mentioned in the Janeway diary and the actors are now playing the parents of their original characters. Like an exact inverse of the obnoxiously manic Walker, Ned Janeway (Sciple) is a painfully awkward young man, stuttering through endless apologies to his flamboyant partner, Theo (Nelson). Theo is a tortured artist and Ned spins in an impassive orbit around him. The pair has been commissioned by Ned's parents to design a dream house but, unfortunately, Theo's muse has run dry.

Exacerbating the situation is Lina, an obviously unstable woman who has latched onto Theo. She is a familiar enough character, the sort of witty, wounded Southern belle who can make the word "pepperoni" sound like a prelude to seduction. In the original production of Greenberg's play, Lina was justly criticized as a hollow and stereotyped character. Rather than simply channeling Zelda Fitzgerald, however, actress Carolyn Pool plays the part with admirable restraint, buoying the otherwise sluggish pace of the second act.

With Lina thrown into the mix, the conflict between Ned and Theo becomes much more palatable than the petty squabbling of their children. Gone are the cold and ironic yuppies of the first hour. The parents are less wrapped up in themselves than in the drama that binds them; because they matter to each other, they also matter to us. As Lina gravitates from Theo to Ned, and the mystery of the fabulous Janeway House unfolds, we are drawn into a tangle of lust and frustrated genius. As the lights fall and the rain subsides, we are left wondering how the Janeway children could have missed all this--how so much is lost in the translation from one generation to the next.

 

Three Days of Rain plays through February 7 at the Seventh Place Theatre in St. Paul; (651) 291-7005.

 
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