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Falling Stars

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.

When Richard Greenberg's play Three Days of Rain had its world premiere in 1997, it happened down in Orange County at South Coast Rep. It starred an actress named Patricia Clarkson, who went on to win accolades for her performance in the play off-Broadway, and is now a regular face in movies and television.

Some would say Clarkson is a star. Others would argue no, she's a well known actress. But there's debate. Someone like Julia Roberts, now she's star--everyone can agree on that. So, Patricia Clarkson is not Julia Roberts (she'll never command a $20 million-a-picture salary) but Clarkson does have one thing that Roberts does not--and it's something Ms. Julia will never be able to buy.

It's called theatrical mystique. Clarkson's turn in Three Days of Rain is today part of theater lore. She earned great reviews in the play's dual roles of Nan & Lina--plus the production was never immortalized for film or television. So, it's now the stuff of legend. This status was confirmed last month when Three Days of Rain received its Broadway debut. Almost every review of the splashy new revival mentioned Clarkson's name as the actress who originated the role--usually, favorably comparing her to the actress now reinterpreting the part--and when talking to lifelong theatergoers, they would breathlessly speak of Clarkson's performance and then shake their heads and say, &quotWhy; didn't they just have her play the role again?"

Well, because Julia Roberts wanted to play the roles of Nan & Lina on Broadway. And play them she does, earning cheers when she makes her entrance and lining up crowds at the stage door hoping to catch a glimpse or maybe an autograph. But these sideshows, especially the vaudeville of security guards taking tourists' cameras away as they enter the theater, are more interesting than Ms. Roberts' performance on stage.

In Act I, as Nan, Roberts simply looks uncomfortable. The act is a showcase for the two male characters (played by Paul Rudd and Bradley Cooper) and Roberts has no idea how to act when she's not in the spotlight. She has one monologue where she addresses the audience directly, and in that she does just fine, but most of the time she looks like she's waiting to say her lines.

Act II is much worse. This act is all about her character, but there's just no romantic chemistry between her and Paul Rudd. What's more, Roberts adopts a southern accent which makes her sound like a schoolgirl reading aloud the part of Blanche DuBois in an English class.

There have been worse Broadway debuts--last fall, Suzanne Somers' lasted only 9 performances--but none in recent memory have gotten such attention. It's possible that Roberts will earn a Tony nomination next Tuesday, but in the hearts and minds of theatergoers, the legend has already been written. Julia Roberts is a heaven-sent movie star, but her stage debut has been a wash.

Al Pacino is a movie star who's Broadway debut was a success. In 1969, he won the Tony for Best Actor in the play Does a Tiger Wear a Necktie? Pacino started out in the theater--studying in the ---60's at the Actors' Studio when it was synonymous with Lee Strasberg, not James Lipton. Like Clarkson, Pacino's early work is the stuff of legend and the fact that that work was ephemeral--that we can no longer see his famous turns as Pavlo Hummel or Richard III--only adds to his mystique.

Pacino has not forgotten the theater, but his thespian efforts of late have been just as erratic as his work for the movies. Unlike Roberts, Pacino is an assured stage presence; although today, decades after his off-Broadway triumphs, his assurance often devolves into self-parody. Like his turn in Orphans, a three-man show he performed here in the Fairfax district a few months back, Pacino's act in Oscar Wilde's Salome, running through this weekend at the Wadsworth Theatre in Brentwood, is hammy and entertaining. But it's a sloppy performance in a misguided show. It was tedious to watch on Broadway three seasons back, when Pacino's costars were Dianne Wiest and Marisa Tomei, and I can't imagine that's its better without them. However, I have heard good things whispered about Jessica Chastain in the title role. Who knows, today's word of mouth may be tomorrow's legend.

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.

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