Julia Roberts makes her Broadway debut

Julia Roberts' Broadway debut is hardly challenging. But that hasn't stopped New Yorkers falling under her spell. Rhoda Koenig joins a preview audience
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In the noisiest part of the most clamorous city in the world, one Broadway marquee is modest - indeed, cryptic. A black-and-white photograph - of a man's trouser bottoms and shoes on a rain-slicked pavement - above the title Three Days of Rain is the only indication that a play is about to be performed inside. The marquee is otherwise blank, showing the names of none of the three actors. There is, however, no need to tell New Yorkers who the star is. Everyone knows it is Julia Roberts.

The show runs for only three months, the first in previews, and its success has been shouted about - nearly $1m in the first week! But touts who, a few weeks ago, were offering tickets for up to five times the box-office charge are now trying to flog them for almost the same price. When a woman asked, at the theatre, to purchase tickets, the reply was, "How many do you want?" "Premium seats" (centre ones in the first two rows) are available for $251.25 (£145), other stalls seats for $101.25 (£60).

Fifteen minutes before the start of a Wednesday matinée preview, most of the audience has arrived and is queuing in a spring snowstorm, but this eagerness may be fuelled by a policy hitherto unknown in New York. In the previous week, ticket buyers have received two e-mail messages warning that latecomers will not be admitted until the interval. This injunction is repeated on several signs at the Bernard B Jacobs Theater. Other signs warn that taking photographs or making recordings is contrary to New York State law.

The homeland-security atmosphere intensifies when an usher takes out a computer to scan tickets for counterfeits. Inside, the tone is that of a worried carnival. The audience, mostly middle-aged or elderly, some infirm, seem terrified of being chucked out if they don't reach their seats in time. One white-haired ancient, moving slowly and shakily on two sticks, seems unlikely to make it to his seat before curtain up. Will he be shot, or merely tackled? I show my ticket to a burly man who is calling out directions like a sideshow barker. He points, shouting, "Up them stairs!" while continuing to chew gum.

My $60 seat is in the last row, next to a flaking mural, but the theatre is small, with only one balcony. Beside and in front of me are a dozen teenagers from Brooklyn. They are taking part in an educational programme that introduces disadvantaged young people with good academic records to the theatre. In fact, this group's mentor is Marc Platt, one of the producers, who pops up in the aisle to urge the kids to pay close attention. "This is a very difficult play, but I want you to stick with it. What's important is what isn't said." A voice on the speaker system reminds us that "taking photographs is STRICTLY prohibited", and invites us, in the same stern tone, to enjoy the play. We're off.

Richard Greenberg's play was first seen off Broadway nine years ago, where its run and reviews were no more than respectable. The subject (two children of an architect who has just died and the son of his late partner meet before and after the reading of the will) and the style (Friends with fewer jokes) seem tame for the Broadway debut of so brilliant a star. But it soon becomes clear that that is the point. Unlike Cate Blanchett, who recently enthralled New Yorkers with her Hedda Gabler, Roberts is playing it very, very safe. Little is required of her at first beyond standing expressionless through the applause that greets her when the lights go up, and conveying exasperation, in a flat and reasonable voice, with her nutty brother. Her calm, competent presence (during only about half of the first act) is enhanced by her knitting, though the director, Joe Mantello, may simply have been trying to solve the eternal actor's problem of what to do with the hands.

When it comes to actual competence rather than just its appearance, however, Roberts - specifically, her delivery - falls short. Paul Rudd, as her brother, and Bradley Cooper, as the partner's son and Roberts' former lover, may be too strenuous and busy, but they send every syllable pinging against the rear wall. Roberts' lines die out less than halfway back. Given what I do hear, however, I'm not sure this is a bad thing. Much of the dialogue is arch and wordy, unlikely to be spoken even by so pretentious a character as the immature brother: "It's like a palimpsest or a pentimento. I had the most astonishing epiphany." Greenberg has also sprinkled the dialogue with extracts from the "Ladybird Book of Cultural Chat". The brother burns a diary and says, "This is great! I feel like Hedda Gabler!" The cultural level, however, is not high enough to assume the audience has heard of Nietzsche: Roberts says that a great German writer, whose name she can't remember, "defined architecture as..." Fed up, I mutter "frozen music" an instant before she does. When the lights go up for the interval, the girl in front of me turns round, puzzled: "How did you know the words to the song?"

I am desperate for some fresh air, but am thwarted by another novel policy: "You got your ticket, Miss? No readmission without your ticket." Among the captives, there is much grousing. "It's horrible! Everything about it is horrible!" says a Frenchwoman. "I came because I wanted to see Julia Roberts. I knew this was not a good play, but I did not know it was THIS bad!" There is general dissatisfaction at the amount of time Roberts spends on stage ("The two men are the main actors, dialogue-wise"), her lack of passion ("I think she could have got a lot more emotional with the brother"), and the difficulty of hearing her ("I'm in Row H, and I can't hear her half the time"). I tell a couple that Roberts is a mystery to those in the balcony; the man thinks my complaint unreasonable: "Oh, well, you have to expect, especially with someone who is not a trained actress, that if you pay half what we're paying up front..." He stops as he sees where this sentence is heading. Another man comments, "It's like that movie Notting Hill, where everyone was running around after her and in awe of her. Now we're the ones doing that, but we have to pay for it." As I return to my seat, I see the Frenchwoman going to hers and ask why she isn't leaving. "I love to suffer."

The actors are now playing the parents of their first-act characters, and one can see where the kids got their sophistication. Roberts, in an off-and-on southern accent, asks the character who stutters, "You know 'bout Demosthenes?" The man later says he feels like a "flâneur", and asks Roberts, "Do you know that word?" Clearly he doesn't know it too well himself - he rhymes it with "manure". The customers who feel defrauded must really be simmering now, as Roberts appears in only about a third of this act. But there is a scene in which she kisses the stutterer, and, after a blackout, they are discovered in bed (though well covered). At this time, the rain, which has been falling throughout the act behind an upstage window, now pours down in earnest, creating a curtain of water between us and the lovers. It also, to my great delight, pours down on several people in the front row, who hold up raincoats to screen themselves from the play they have paid $250 to see. I later read that the water is heated to 110 degrees and treated with UV light to kill bacteria. Elsewhere in the audience, heads are nodding on to chests.

Roberts and the men get a decent, not ecstatic hand, and are not recalled. I head with relief to the exit, to find that the main event of the afternoon is about to begin. Behind crash barriers, about 200 people are lined up beside the stage door, in front of which a black Denali with darkened windows is parked. Five policemen hurry traffic and pedestrians along. As a coach or lorry moves slowly up the street, blocking the view from the opposite pavement, screams of rage rise from the crowd there. Next to me, a short woman in her sixties is berating her husband. "Whattaya standing here for? Come on! We gotta go home!"

"I want to see Julia Roberts," he says.

The wife explodes. "Whattaya MEAN, you wanna see Julia Roberts! You just SAW Julia Roberts! You saw her from the second row!"

"I know," he says calmly, "but that was a show. Now I want to see the real thing."

'Three Days of Rain' opens at the Bernard B Jacobs Theater, New York (001 212 239 6200) on 19 April