by Maria Pendolino
ALAP correspondent and artistic director of The Almost Knew Theatre Co.
NEW YORK -- What is it about Julia Roberts? Why does everyone in America love her so much? It's been reported time and time again that she is so gosh-darned "likeable." Even in the trickiest of situations, she brings critics to their knees.
I had the not-so-extreme pleasure of seeing Ms. Roberts in the flesh a few Fridays ago in her Broadway debut, Three Days of Rain, a relatively un-remarkable play by Richard Greenberg at the Jacobs Theater. Flanked by two reputable stage actors, Paul Rudd and Bradley Cooper, Julia delivered a performance worthy of a high school scene study class. Every line was calculated and fraught with pregnant pauses. It seemed like she believed someone would edit out the awkwardness, as they do in her films. In normal conversation, we frequently repeat what we say in rapid succession. However, one of her lines came out: "I know. [PAUSE] [PAUSE] I know." In the front row of the mezzanine, I struggled to hear her and, when I did, it sounded as if she was shouting. Her performance was as forgettable as what I had for lunch last Tuesday.
But, back to the question at hand: What is it about her? Even Ben Brantley, the vicious theatre critic for The New York Times, could not rip her apart. At the beginning of his review, he proclaimed himself a Julia-phile and continued making excuses about the play, and did whatever else he could do to justify her barely acceptable performance. I myself made excuses for her when people would ask me about the show. "She wasn't great," I would say, quickly followed by, "but it was so great to see her live!" Was it? Is it sad that during intermission I wondered how her understudy, Michelle Federer (who finally took her claws out of the role of Nessarose in Wicked), would have done?
The show ended, of course, with the completely overused standing ovation. Trying to make my way out of the theater was useless, as the doors were jammed with people trying to wedge their way near the barricades at the stage door. The entire street was flooded by people with video and disposable cameras. I wondered how many of them saw the show and how many were raging super-fans who tried every night to steal a glance. I walked right by a plastic-looking Barbara Walters -- who took in the show with a few friends who actually look 75 years old -- and even she seemed disappointed.
When the Tony nominations were announced yesterday, I was not shocked to see Julia's name missing from the canon of other respectable New York theatre folk. She may be nice, and likeable, and have the brightest smile in show business, but for this theatre devotee, I'd rather she stay on the big screen surrounded by Hugh Grant and Richard Gere. I'd prefer to pay $10.25 to spend two hours with her two-dimensional screen persona rather than $101.25 for two hours with her equally flat onstage self.
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