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Scattered showers 

Rain offers laughs, but lacks cohesion

You can't choose your parents, as the saying goes. Richard Greenberg's play, Three Days of Rain, charts the ways that the character and behaviors of adults are passed along like family heirlooms. The humor-laced drama takes place in a Manhattan apartment, with the two acts separated by 35 years. The three actors play parents in one act and their grown children in the other.

Greenberg's twist is that he flips the order of the acts, first showing us 1995, then following the intermission, reaching back to 1960. Seeing the people in this sequence, it's as though the offspring have defined the parents, and not vice-versa. Like such time-shifting plays as Betrayal and Arcadia, Three Days of Rain reveals the past to answer the questions of the present. But while Greenberg's play and Horizon Theatre's production have plenty of ideas, they don't gel sufficiently to give the material the pay-off for which it calls.

First, we meet high-strung Walker Janeway (John Fischer), a highly educated drifter who has resurfaced in New York for the reading of the will of his father, a famous architect. You might say Walker's the kind of person who doesn't function well in the real world, as he's prone to tantrums and impulsive behavior. His sister Nan (Ann Wilson) is alternatively relieved to see him and furious at him for his year-long absence.

The siblings are joined by lifelong friend Pip (Brik Berkes), the son of their father's partner and thus a kind of brother to Nan and Walker. The Macguffin of the play is "Janeway House," the first triumph of their fathers' architectural firm, a "crystalline" residence renowned as "the best great building for living in." Act 1 builds to a dispute over who gets possession of the house, while Act 2 reveals the circumstances leading up to its actual design.

Evoking the bohemia of Manhattan in 1960, the second half casts Fischer and Wilson as Ned and Lina, future parents of Walker and Nan, with Berkes as Pip's pop Theo. Initially, though, it's Theo and Lina who are lovers, instantly preparing us for a romantic triangle, since we know she'll end up with Ned.

Greenberg's Rain clicks most completely when examining the dynamics of relationships. Nan and Walker play the responsible sister and the prodigal brother, the unspoken resentment and dependency proving -- not unpleasantly -- reminiscent of the siblings in You Can Count on Me. The partnership of Ned and Theo shows the interplay of creative professionals when one is "the talent" and the other is "the support," although the architects will see these roles reversed.

As in his yuppie comedy Eastern Standard, Greenberg shows a penchant for arch quips and situations, like the way Pip, a soap opera actor, plays a shirtless guy called "Butte." The 1960 section cuts the playwright off from the kind of contemporary references he favors although he tailors some time-specific jokes about Anais Nin and the like. Often, though, the character's speeches to the audience, such as Pip's tale about how his parents met, prove more engrossing than the give-and-take of the dialogue scenes, as if this particular story would rather be prose than drama.

Director Lisa Adler and the cast at times take advantage of the play's cross-generational premise, as Walker's oversized gesture of arms flung out is mirrored by Lina in Act 1. The first act primes us to be wary of the Lina character -- Walker says of his father, "He probably thought she wasn't crazy, just Southern" -- and in Lina's first scene, Wilson gives her a hot-tempered disdain that makes her seem like a beatnik harpy.

It's a relief that the second act doesn't dwell on Lina's mental problems, although she'll refer to her moodiness with a line like, "I usually wake up in a brown study." She functions as something of a muse for both architects, and when romance develops between Lina and Ned over three rainy days, the play turns quietly sexy and bittersweet, but also a bit dull.

Fischer plays the de facto central character of each act, and both characters have traits that readily lead to over-acting: the son's volatility and his father's stutter. Both men have prominent "edges." Walker being self-centered and aggressive, while Ned is emotionally remote (especially in the eyes of his kids), but Fischer softens the roles, making them more conventionally likable than they need to be.

Pip and Theo may be supporting parts, but Berkes energizes all the scenes he's in, particularly in hilariously heated speeches in Act 1.

Horizon's Three Days of Rain has plenty of other things going for it, including laughs and insights about families and the creative process. But the play doesn't take full advantage of the chronological split, and the show comes across as two half-plays that don't quite measure up to a whole one.

Three Days of Rain plays through May 13 at Horizon Theatre, 1083 Austin Ave. at Euclid Avenue, with performances at 8 p.m. Wed.-Fri., 8:30 p.m. Sat. and 5 p.m. Sun. $16-25. 404-584-7450.

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