“It is not given to every man to take a bath of multitude,” wrote the poet Charles Baudelaire in 1869 in Paris Spleen, “enjoying a crowd is an art.” Baudelaire is well known for his description of the quintessential figure of the modern city: the flaneur, a man who strolls and saunters, possessing, as the poet put it, “the hate of the home, and the passion for roaming.” One irony of Richard Greenberg’s Three Days of Rain, Flying Machine Theatre Company’s current production, is that its central character, Ned Janeway, is both a would-be flaneur and an unassuming architect who, along with his partner Theo Wexler, becomes world famous for designing a private residence in a Long Island suburb. Ned’s desire to be “as much at home among the facades of houses as a citizen is in his four walls” (as Walter Benjamin said of the flaneur) seems to be at odds with his temperament and his professional reputation. Greenberg emphasizes this tension by referencing German Romantic notions of architecture as “frozen music.” The contradictions underlying the play’s architectural motif ask us to consider whether or not architecture embodies who we are and how we live. Do our public buildings, private residences and monuments reflect our culture, and/or are they impediments that circumscribe our potential for creativity? Are we enabled or entombed by the edifices we design, build, buy, rent and think we own?
On one level, this play is concerned with family, property and legacy. In the first act, Ned Janeway’s vagabond son, Walker, discovers an abandoned apartment that Ned and Theo shared as young business partners in 1960, an empty shell 35 years past its prime. He makes an announcement that resonates throughout the play, although its claim is never fully realized. About to attend a meeting to settle his father’s estate, Walker tells his sister Nan, “Now we are finally going to find out what belongs to us,” referring not only to the legacy of their father’s silence and indifference, and their mother Lina’s emotional instability, but also to the jewel in the crown of their father’s architectural career, the Janeway House. Featured in Life magazine in 1963, the fictional house casts a large shadow across the play’s characters, though no action occurs there and the audience is never treated to a glimpse of a plan, elevation or photograph. One brief exchange of dialogue provides a description, however. The design of its windows–which Nan refers to with a wink as “fenestration”–highlights the symmetry of solid and void. “The house is a prism,” Walker adds, “with a different light in every room.”
On a deeper level, the play focuses on the way our relationships with other people are always implicated in the spaces and structures–apartments, houses, city sidewalks and suburban streets–that we share, sell, inhabit, cohabit, inherit and leave behind. Janeway House is, to borrow another phrase from Baudelaire, an “edifice of the impalpable.” It is a structure that Greenberg uses quite successfully to embody the hopes and disappointments of three generations. Commissioned by Ned Janeway’s parents and therefore a professional and personal undertaking, the house functions as physical structure and ineffable idea, an award-winning architectural marvel and yet, perhaps, something less than a home. To Walker and Nan, the house has the potential to be an ideal space–a prism that has the power to contain light without obliterating its variability. When Walker decides to end his nomadic existence and live at Janeway House, sister Nan–like most of us, in thrall to the American valorization of home-ownership–wants to oblige. She believes that the house will take care of him, like a child taking in a parent. Their lifelong friend Pip Wexler, Theo’s son, endorses the plan, recognizing and resenting the fact that Walker has been in pain for as long as they have known each other.
What’s so fascinating about the decisions Walker, Nan and Pip make about Janeway House is the extraordinary degree to which they are predicated upon an ignorance of history. The play’s bifurcated structure translates the architectonic tension between solid and void, between parents and children, into story. Both acts take place in the same Manhattan apartment, but the second act takes us back to 1960, when the apartment teemed with jazz, cigarettes, youthful ambition and insecurity. The set design offers compelling reminders of the architectural-historical theme of fullness and emptiness. The first act minimizes the distinction between inside and out. An incomplete exterior wall, constructed of unfinished lumber, allows the city to penetrate the empty apartment with images and sounds, notably car alarms. Another set detail foreshadows the importance of “fenestration” and of glass barriers that are too easily breached: The shape of the apartment’s abstract skylight is eerily reminiscent of a coffin.
In the second act, however, the energy of the city feeds the apartment’s inhabitants, who in turn reinvigorate the colorful, smoke-and-music-filled space. During the “three days of rain” that Ned writes about in his journal, the apartment is a haven, a true home, protecting Ned and Lina from the outside world.
The performers are more than equal to the challenge the play imposes with its trope of time reversal. Julian Chachula, Jr. as Pip, the self-deprecating soap opera actor who means to enjoy life, is especially dynamic. Chachula’s endearing and comic turn as the affable Pip in the first act manages to hint at the undertones of anguish that plague his father Theo in the second act. Jerome Johnson delivers a strong performance as the reticent yet intense Ned Janeway. Robin Monteith makes a difficult task look easy: She distinguishes the imperturbable Nan from the near-hysterical Lina without resorting to caricature, a potential problem arising from the script’s overly broad sketch of mother and daughter. The performance’s finest moments occur when Walker, Nan and Pip revisit their misspent youths late in the first act; the brisk writing fuels the chemistry among the actors as they all hit their stride. Its weaker moments occur very early and very late, and have more to do with the play than the production. Monologues in the first act delay our entry into the material and the final moments of the second act lack the intensity of the first.
The choice of this play augurs well for theater in the Triangle. Flying Machine Theater Company should be commended for recognizing its challenge and its subtlety. Since opening night, I have returned again and again to the idea of Janeway House. It is a suburban structure conceived of by a man of the city. It is a house idealized by the children of the architects who created it, even though it reneged on the promise of the suburbs: It never sheltered or nurtured a family. Architectural acclaim aside, the house’s alternating solids and voids represent the endowment that parents bestow upon their children.