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The Rainmaker

Woody Harrelson makes his Broadway debut with Jayne Atkinson

The revival of N. Richard Nash's The Rainmaker is billed as a comedy. But it might better be called "The Woody Harrelson Show".

As Bill Starbuck, Harrelson plays a consummate braggart conman who starts out promising to bring rain to a drought-ridden Western town in the 1930s. As the play progresses, Starbuck unleashes a wellspring of hope into the love-starved life of Lizzie Curry, the plain Jane (or Jayne, as in Atkinson) of this theatrical fable.

In the process, Harrelson -- who to many television fans will forever be Woody Boyd, the sweet but slow-witted bartender in Cheers -- establishes himself as an absolutely first-rate stage actor and breathes new life into the drama-starved Broadway theater.

Harrelson starts off slowly, inauspiciously, like the tiny fleck in the sky he predicts will grow into a mighty rain cloud. But by the middle of Act II, Harrelson himself has become a cloudburst of sheer animal magnetism, dominating the stage of the Brooks Atkinson Theater and everyone on it.

I only wish he had showed a little more light and shadow -- more hints of his glorious, snake-charming self -- early on in Act I. He seems to approach Starbuck's long first act monologue about the promise of rain more as a declamatory sermon rather than a passionate conviction. Perhaps one can partly trace this to Harrelson's own real-life training for the ministry. But director Scott Ellis, the usually brilliant Broadway maestro who has directed such revivals as 1776 and She Loves Me, fails to bring out enough of Starbuck's colors in Act I, despite the fact that they become a full-fledged rainbow in Act II. Moreover, Ellis and the Roundabout Theatre Company, which is producing the revival, should have cut some of the play's exposition. One or two fewer dollops of dialogue regarding Lizzie's plainness would not have been missed.

Nevertheless, Harrelson and the entire cast make what could have been a deadly dull presentation of a dated play, in less talented hands, riveting theater.

That Harrelson can act -- and act up a storm, both figuratively and quite literally -- in The Rainmaker should come as little surprise to anyone who has seen his engrossing Oscar-nominated performance in The People vs. Larry Flynt or his chilling instincts in Natural Born Killers.

Jayne Atkinson is flawless as Lizzie, the self-loathing farmer's daughter who comes to some measure of self-respect under Starbuck's spell. And David Aaron Baker and John Bedford Lloyd, who play Lizzie's devoted odd-ball brothers, and Jerry Hardin, as the trio's long-suffering dad, are funny, poignant and winning. You'll be seeing a lot more of Baker, who's sure to be a star in his own right someday. And, given the chance, I'll bet he'd make a standout Starbuck himself.

Special credit should be given to Jim Carnahan for his impeccable casting of the show. If he and Todd Haimes, the artistic director of the Roundabout Theater, are smart, and I know they are, they should consider Harrelson for a production of Hamlet sometime early in the new Millenium. He's got that kind of potential, and I envision him as the American answer to English actor Ralph Fiennes, who turned in a great Broadway performance as the melancholy Dane several seasons ago.

The Rainmaker was originally produced on Broadway in 1954, starring Darren McGaven as Starbuck and Geraldine Page as Lizzie. But its ultimate rendition may have been the subsequent 1956 movie version starring the late Burt Lancaster as Starbuck, one of several roles for which he's best remembered, and the then nearly 50-year-old screen legend Katharine Hepburn as Lizzie. From time to time, I catch the old movie on TV and I can hear Lancaster imploring the bashful Lizzie to, in effect, look up and embrace her beauty even as it's reflected in his own eyes.

On the technical front, James Noone's set rises well above the utilitarian, evoking a sense of endless space of the west that was. Likewise, Jess Goldstein's costumes and Peter Kaczorowski's lighting design are colorful and effective.

In the end, just as the character of "The Rainmaker" lightens the spirit of one family in a small dusty Western town, the play The Rainmaker, with its stellar cast headed by erstwhile TV star Woody Harrelson, brightens all Broadway.

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