The Thing About Julia; A Bomb Explodes at Studio 54

Here’s a few brief observations about Julia Roberts, now starring on Broadway in Richard Greenberg’s extremely slight 1997 Three Days of Rain.

What Antonin Artaud has described as a “strange sun”—a light of abnormal intensity that illuminates everything in the theater—can be cruel and merciless. Onstage, there’s nowhere to hide. The stage will always find you out.

Three Days of Rain is not only Ms. Roberts’ Broadway debut. According to the Playbill, it’s her first appearance on the professional stage. For myself, movie stars are one thing—one lucky thing, mostly. It takes an innate talent that’s been kissed by God to make it in the theater.

Ms. Roberts seems, firstly, not to have trained in the field. She lacks the necessary vocal equipment and emotional range. Yet she plays two roles: in the first act, set in 1995, the sensible sister, Nan; in the second act, which takes place in 1960, Nan’s madcap mother Lina, who’s an alcoholic Southerner compared to Zelda Fitzgerald. That might be a virtuoso stretch for the most gifted of actresses.

But Ms. Roberts practically reverses the two roles she’s supposed to play. She suggests neurotic tension in her peculiarly stiff, ill-at-ease performance as the calm, coping Nan, and there’s not even a hint of madness—least of all of a drunk, lost Zelda—in her dull, “adorable” Lina. Her delivery is flat at the best of times, nor can she sustain a Southern accent. Fatally for a stage actress, she possesses no danger, no inner life.

Let be. Mr. Greenberg’s sketchy, minor drama about family secrets, architecture and the creative impulse is a rambling form of theatrical blogging with a dash of gimmicky, faux mystery thrown in. The limited run is a sell-out. Also appearing with Julia Roberts are Paul Rudd and TV star Bradley Cooper. Mr. Rudd overacts in the first act, and Mr. Cooper overacts in both. Santo Loquasto’s costume designs manage to make Ms. Roberts look drab. Three Days of Rain is rumored to have been directed by Joe Mantello.

Penny-Farthing Opera

In the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t matter much that an opportunistic, star-driven Broadway show like Three Days of Rain gets produced and succeeds at the box office. It’s normal. What matters—and hurts terribly—is the fiasco the Roundabout Theatre Company has made of Bertolt Brecht’s 1928 The Threepenny Opera. It’s nothing that I, for one, can remain cool about. The sheer mindlessness of it all left me staggered and in despair. They’ve dropped a cluster-bomb on a masterpiece.

I was accompanied to the performance by Eric Bentley, the man who was most responsible for bringing Brecht’s great plays to America, and whose fine books and essays about the playwright are considered seminal. Let us assume that Mr. Bentley, who translated the lyrics of Kurt Weill’s enduring songs for a production of The Threepenny Opera in the 30’s, has no ax to grind. At 90, alert and still passionate about the theater, he’s done all the ax-grinding he cares to. The sensible Mr. Bentley threw in the towel at the end of the first act.

“No tragedy ever made me suffer so much,” he explained, and headed home.

When he asked me why I was staying for the second act, I replied lamely, “Duty.” But the die was cast in the opening image of the evening, when Brecht’s beggars and lowlifes lined up to stare angrily at us costumed mostly as Studio 54 rent boys and leather-bar hustlers. Though Scott Elliott’s production, costumed by Isaac Mizrahi, has been staged in the converted Studio 54 itself, the familiar late-1970’s concept is a colossal blunder.

The piece isn’t about coked-up hedonism, but the exploited poor. No beggar ever touched your heart with pierced nipples. The hackneyed Studio 54 references ruin the timelessness of Brecht. And, more crucially than anything perhaps, his lowlifes didn’t copy a decadent party crowd. They consciously mimicked the style of the bourgeoisie, as Teflon Dons do in their way today.

Brecht entitled it The Threepenny Opera for good reason. It’s the beggars’ own morality tale—an opera, no less—for our pleasure and instruction. The beggars and grotesques are the authors and actors of their own dreams. But they must insinuate danger, not scream it. There isn’t a Kurt Weill song in his supreme, haunting score that isn’t misunderstood here, horribly camped up or plain ruined.

The Brecht-Weill songs must be sung dispassionately, laid back and unself-consciously, ironically refined. There is, in a sense, no “performance” in Brecht’s plays. For all outward, showbizzy display is to be avoided in the cause of direct, primary, almost naïve truth. But nothing here is allowed to speak for itself. “Mac the Knife” is delivered like a smug group dirge. “The Jealousy Duet” is reduced to a crude catfight and shouting match. A brothel scene dissolves into a predictable Day-Glo orgy. “The Army Song” is accompanied by a gang rape (à la Abu Ghraib).

“What bite and tang, what insidious irony, in the clean thrusts of Brecht’s verses,” wrote Harold Clurman. “What economy and lightness in Weill’s songs …. ”

Insidious irony? Lightness? The new translation by the notoriously scatological Wallace Shawn has thrown shit at poets. Mr. Shawn and his director have made what is unique, earthy and beautiful only coarse, labored and deadly. The audience is treated like idiots. Lucy Brown has become a drag queen. Why? But are we meant to be shocked when the actor playing Lucy lifts up his skirt to flash his dick at us? Well, what the hey. Similarly when Alan Cumming’s Macheath turns out to be—ooh!—bisexual. What a surprise! Alan Cumming kissing men and women right there before our eyes!

I’m tired of his pixie bisexuality. Mr. Cumming is no Macheath—least of all a menacing one. He’s still playing the naughty host of Cabaret (and he played him better). He also sings out of tune. Costumed in black studded pants and boots, Mr. Cumming’s loud Macheath sports a Mohawk, a plunging neckline and a glittering silver cross. He looks like a neo-punk bolero dancer. But in this uncertain, ragtag ensemble, which includes Cyndi Lauper as a sentimentalized Jenny (Lotte Lenya’s original role), it’s every man—or woman—for himself.

It’s why, I can only imagine, a favorite performer of mine, the veteran Jim Dale, plays Mr. Peachum as a lovable vaudevillian. Mr. Peachum isn’t a vaudevillian, but Mr. Dale is. And he’s terrific at what he does, and I was glad for a while. His un-Brechtian shtick was at least a sign of authentic life and talent in this cockeyed caravan.

But there can be no grace or redemption for this lot, though Brecht wished it so for his impoverished criminal class pretending to perform an opera at capitalism’s nadir. This is the nadir of the Roundabout Theatre Company instead. Mr. Elliott and Co. couldn’t have done a better job had they set out to destroy a great work of art. Shame on all of them.