Three New Plays Give Us Life As Livable, Lonely and Loony

Hey-ho. And if I may say so: Ho-hum. The Roundabout Theater Company’s solid revival of that old cornfed potboiler, The Rainmaker , is a surprising choice even by nice and cozy middle-of-the-road standards. N. Richard Nash’s 1954 tearjerker about a con man who melts the heart of a spinster was a popular success, not a great play, not even a good play.

It’s a safe one-particularly when it stars Woody Harrelson as Starbuck, the hustler who peddles dreams and rain to Midwestern farming folk during the 1930’s drought. At least Lizzie Curry, the independent woman destined to be an old maid who “finds herself” during a roll in the hay, is wonderfully played by Jayne Atkinson. She takes the honors-and is superior to Katharine Hepburn’s hard-edged version slumming it in the 1956 movie The Rainmaker , with Burt Lancaster.

Ms. Atkinson, an underrated actress who keeps growing in stature the more we see her, doesn’t play a false note. She wouldn’t know how. She’s honest and touching in everything she does. She’s a beautiful actress here playing a plain Jane. But she isn’t tempted into the merely sentimental, as a lesser performer would be. She quietly manages to convey a stubborn woman prepared to end up on the shelf, who has never given up on love. Behind Lizzie’s wall of defensiveness, Ms. Atkinson brilliantly suggests a secret core of softness and hope.

Mr. Harrelson (from Cheers , of course, and the edgy, dangerous Natural Born Killers and The People Vs. Larry Flynt ) does well. But as is often the case with movie stars who return to the stage after a long absence, he wants to be liked too much.

He’s confident, believable, agile-a winning presence. But as Starbuck, there’s no menace in him. In his less effective Act II scenes with Ms. Atkinson, he’s too much the hyperactive boyish dope . Applause broke out when for some showy reason he did a handstand during the love scene. Then again, I’ve seen Joan Collins cheered for doing a cartwheel while playing Amanda in Private Lives , in Dallas. (Don’t ask.)

At center, Mr. Harrelson plays too sweet for a con man who robs the desperately vulnerable. When Lizzie ultimately makes an honest man of him, we’re not surprised. Mr. Harrelson’s Starbuck has been a lost dreamer all along. He means no harm.

Perhaps The Rainmaker doesn’t ask for more. It’s a folksy play. “Lizzie, when a man ignores you, he ain’t ignoring you,” says Pop. “Pop,” says Lizzie, “Can a woman take lessons in being a woman?” Sure can! And even poor Lizzie can have her five minutes of happiness, as protective Pop describes her tumble in the loft. I’m not so sure that’s such a dignified message for so righteous a play. But even the phony rainmaker brings rain, and all ends smugly ever after.

N. Richard Nash’s The Rainmaker , directed by Scott Ellis, with an excellent supporting ensemble, is the safe, lowbrow version of The Iceman Cometh . Eugene O’Neill’s con man Hickey, the ultimate salesman of pipe dreams, is what Starbuck would be if he grew up. That is, if he were rooted in reality, not shallow romance. O’Neill’s terrible message is that life is unlivable. Mr. Nash has a more comforting one: Every cloud has a silver lining.

The message of Donald Margulies’ Dinner With Friends at the Variety Arts Theater is this: Middle-aged couples who date other middle-aged couples end up the loneliest 40-year-olds in the world. If they’re not careful.

Let me admit to a bias: I hate platonic foursomes. They’re always having dinner together, like Mr. Margulies’ two married couples-forlorn Gabe and Karen, two intrepid food writers who’ve actually-my goodness!-been to Italy; and their best friends Tom, a yuppie lawyer with a roving eye, and his wife Beth, a failed artist who isn’t being as intimate with Tom as Tom would like.

When puer aeternus Tom very understandably leaves Beth after 12 miserable years for a babe who really appreciates him , Gabe and Karen are terribly upset over the lemon almond polenta cake to die for.

“We were supposed to get old and fat together-the four of us,” Gabe moans to Tom who-very understandably-isn’t impressed by such middle-age wanness. Who on earth wants to grow old and fat together with another old and fat couple? But here’s the twist. The state of Gabe’s self-satisfied marriage is now under question with the failure of the other. Just as the happiness of poor Lizzie in The Rainmaker is determined by her prospects of getting a man, so the happiness of Gabe and Karen is defined by Tom and Beth getting along.

The usually bright Mr. Margulies ( Sight Unseen , The Loman Family Picnic ) has set up a watery premise for these predictable suburban mini-dramas in Connecticut and the Cape. The truth is that fortysomething Gabe and Karen are awesomely boring foodies whose marriage appears to be a downer from the outset. Why are they so pleased with themselves? They are pallidly middle-aged before their time, as if they weren’t the friends of battling Tom and Beth but their disenchanted parents. Fortysomething be blowed! They could be 60.

But Mr. Margulies is also saying that life sort of dies after 20. Thirty, max. Then we “awaken to the shock of mortality.” He is telling us that youth is fleeting and carefree; and that marriage (and middle age) dulls the edge, what with the mortgage, the kids and the domestic drudgery of a half-life whose lonely compensation is the predictability of dull routine and a second helping of lemon almond polenta cake. Is it shocking news, then, that Tom takes to Rollerblading with his chick? His suffering, devoted wife, Beth, soon announces she’s going to marry a really nice guy, Tom’s business partner. It turns out they had a fling years ago when she was married to Tom. But Tom didn’t know. Surprise!

Dinner With Friends , directed by Daniel Sullivan, is well acted by Matthew Arkin, Lisa Emery, Kevin Kilner and Julie White. But in its comfortable middle-age disillusion, it doesn’t really surprise us at all. It is for baby boomers who resent adulthood.

Praise be for Fuddy Meers , the insane farce at Manhattan Theater Club by and for the young (which includes you and me). Written by David Lindsay-Abaire, a recent graduate of Juilliard, one of his messages is that it’s almost impossible to communicate with anyone about anything.

I couldn’t agree more, particularly when it comes to summarizing his manic plot, which marvelously involves an amnesiac heroine played by the enchanting J. Smith-Cameron, a disturbed fellow with a severe lisp and limp, a stroke victim who pronounces “funny mirrors” as “fuddy meers,” and a psychotic who speaks through a hand-held puppet. As you may have guessed, Mr. Lindsay-Abaire is a sick person, possibly in the tradition of Eugene Ionesco and Christopher Durang. Fuddy Meers is brilliantly performed by the entire ensemble and held miraculously together by its director David Petrarca. Some may find it sophomoric. Maybe so. But this exciting new dramatist has an original mind. When, for instance, the psychotic’s hand-held puppet is killed with a kitchen knife, a touching death scene follows. But Mr. Lindsay-Abaire doesn’t milk it.

This is what the dying hand-puppet says: “I can’t feel my toes.”

Now, I put it to you that any dramatist who can invent a line as good as that is some kind of comic genius. Fuddy Meers surprises us all the way to the nuthouse.

Three New Plays Give Us Life As Livable, Lonely and Loony