''You're here!'' exclaims Paul Rudd when Julia Roberts walks through the door. ''Yes,'' answers Julia Roberts, who is, at this point, still Julia Roberts. She's not yet Nan, the guiltily resilient daughter of famous architect Ned Janeway, recently deceased, and his boozy, depressive Southern wife, Lina. Nan has come to coax her cantankerous brother, Walker (Rudd), to the reading of their father's will, but Roberts herself looks in need of coaxing. Her resistance is also our own: We, the audience, created Julia Roberts, megastar, and we like her that way. She seems to know it and reacts by wilting into the margins and ceding the stage to Rudd.
But Rudd isn't feeling quite at home either. A free-radical dilettante consumed by the sort of fruitless, tormented brilliance that exists, in its purest form, only in contemporary New York drama, Walker's a great character for the restlessly talky, abundantly witty playwright Richard Greenberg (Take Me Out), but it's a swamp for an actor. Rudd reacts initially by snowing us with tics and gestures, the actorly equivalent of an orchestra warming up. It takes Three Days of Rain a while to find its music—much of the first act, in fact. It's not until Bradley Cooper's Pip, a great golden retriever of a man, bounds on stage that the show starts to swing. While Nan and Walker are like downed paratroopers dragging their childhoods behind them, Pip, son of Ned's long-dead partner Theo, skips along unencumbered by history, gifted with just-happy-to-be-here brain chemistry. (His is the best-drawn character of the bunch.) Here's Pip on Oedipus: ''The moral of that story is not 'Your destiny awaits you.' To me it's...you know...Do the F---ing Math.'' Everything, in other words, is fixable, nothing intractably sad. Suddenly, Rudd's malaise takes shape and coheres; Roberts' reticence begins to look less like a retreat than a choice. And just in time for the second act—where everyone plays a different character.
Going back a generation, Rudd now embodies introverted Ned, future father of Walker and Nan; Roberts is irrepressible Lina, her madness still embryonic; and Cooper is Theo, a thunderously insecure bully romantically involved with Lina. From here on, the show belongs to Roberts and Rudd. The former sports a Southern accent that's a tad too Leghorn (especially for a Georgia native); the latter has to affect a stutter. But both seem liberated by the overt theatricality. While their giddy, portentous love affair never quite takes on the road-to-Thebes implacability Greenberg is flirting with, the pairing works dramatically. And when Lina describes to Ned the soaring arc between intentions and accomplishments, and her face breaks into that familiar smile, there are no flashbulbs. We're warmed by the gentler illumination of a true human moment. (Tickets: 212-239-6200) B