Exclusive First Look at Julia Roberts' Broadway Debut

Julia Roberts | Patricia Heaton

Exclusive First Look at Julia's Broadway Debut

Wait a sec, I am not supposed to review Julia Roberts' Broadway debut until opening night, April 19. That's the rule on the Great White Way, and I'm sticking to it. But come on, Julia's on Broadway, you can buy a ticket to previews, and I've been more than a little curious about what's happening at the Royale, now known as the Jacobs Theater.

After all, this is the same place where Sean "Diddy" Combs made his own courageous, if inauspicious stage debut a couple of seasons ago in "A Raisin in the Sun." I wouldn't have remembered that until an usher brought it up.

What is it about the Royale that's made it guinea pig central? I guess because it's such a manageable size with an intimate layout. The orchestra seating is relatively contained. I sat in the back row Saturday for the matinee, having bought a pair of tickets at the box office for $101.25 apiece. But even the back row wasn't far away from the stage

"Three Days of Rain" is otherwise sold out, mind you. People were scalping seats out front, and there was a large crowd of suburbanites angling to get inside because we were having one day of rain in a downpour just before the show began. Many of these people were new to Broadway, which is a good thing: If Roberts can stimulate business, she's welcome all the time.

Crazed fans have not been her only audience so far. I am told that Bruce Willis has already been to the Royale (I mean, Jacobs), as well as Bette Midler and Martha Stewart. Julia's friends are sneaking in when they can. Celeb sightings during this run should be good.

Richard Greenberg wrote "Three Days of Rain," and it debuted off Broadway in November 1997 at the Manhattan Theater Club. Patricia Clarkson, John Slattery and Bradley Whitford originally played the roles now taken over by Roberts, Paul Rudd and Bradley Cooper.

The play was nominated for a Pulitzer but didn't win. You can see why. The first act can be tedious no matter who is in it. Reading reviews from many different productions confirms that. And the woman's role in that act is thankless.

The second act of "Three Days" is more of a showcase for the actress in the trio. Reviews show that in every case, after trudging through the monotony of the first act, the actress playing Lina gets to shine. It's usually hers for the taking. The character sports a Southern accent, gets to be a little bit madcap and is generally quite winning. I'm sure Julia responded to that.

Reports from the first preview — very unfair to do that — were that Roberts was having trouble being heard in the back of the theater. People said she looked thin or scared. Someone said she came off like Erin Brockovich. I really had trouble believing any of this, so off to the box office I went for a sneak peek.

This is not a review (I know the press agents are all swallowing Mylanta right now). But safe to say, "Three Days of Rain" will be a critical hit to accompany its ticket sales. The men are accomplished and do just as you might expect. Paul Rudd can do anything, so you never have to worry about him. Cooper, whom I know from television, is fine. I say this without giving detailed analysis.

As for Julia: She was very good on Saturday afternoon. We heard her clearly in the last row. She has a strong stage presence and I suspect it will just get better and better as she warms up for opening night. She is funny and charming when appropriate, somber and grim with conviction too. She has all her lines digested and you cannot take your eyes off of her. She actually injects some life into that first-act character with some real Roberts sarcasm. It's most welcome. In the second act, though, she combines her best riffs from her performances in "Steel Magnolias" and "Ready to Wear," among others.

And she does not look thin, gaunt or unhappy. Quite to the contrary, she has a supple energy. Our audience went wild for her, with a standing ovation and cheering. So there.

As our usher said, she's already very good and by opening night, pow!

So retract those claws, kitties. And get ready. No, she's not Cherry Jones or Phylicia Rashad — yet. But she's a movie star and can act circles around anyone, and she's going to be a sensation in the papers on the morning of April 20.

My guess is this will open the door for her to alternate doing plays and movies, and that can only be a good thing.

Does Everybody Love Patricia Heaton?

The startling word last week was that in the Katie Couric move domino effect, actress Patricia Heaton — who played Debra on "Everyone Loves Raymond" — might replace Meredith Vieira at "The View."

First of all, Heaton's not a journalist. Vieira had been one for more than 20 years when she arrived at "The View," but let's not get into that.

Heaton is an outspoken leader in the anti-abortion movement and a devout Republican. Right away, this is intriguing because Vieira leans to the left, as does "View" member Joy Behar. The blond girl is a right-wing Republican. And Star Jones? She has her own party.

And what of Barbara Walters? Her best friend in life was Roy Cohn and her second best pal was Henry Kissinger. So I don't think Barbara's going to care one way or another on that score. And she owns 50 percent of the show.

It's not like Heaton's kept her political views to herself: She is honorary chairperson of the group Feminists for Life, which Katha Pollitt described in The Nation as a group of "fetalists." Jane Roberts, wife of newly appointed Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts, is a consultant. Their slogan is "Refuse to Choose."

Heaton also has a film production company with a mission statement on its Web site, which reads, in part: "FourBoys Films seeks to provoke and entertain audiences ... The evidence of Man's eternal struggle between his desire to do good and his capacity for evil is all around us. It is within this conflict that one finds tales of the majesty in the mundane, the honor in failure, and nobility in victory… FourBoys Films is committed to writers who can find both the humor and the drama in these subjects without resorting to either sentimentalism or nihilism."

But Feminists for Life has some problems as a registered not-for-profit organization. They really do turn no profit. In 2004, according to their tax filing, they were in the red. Their total revenue of $323,674 was matched against $379,839 in expenses. They were left with a deficit of $56,165.

Feminists for Life also claimed salaries and wages of about $180,000, about half of their expenses. Other expenses included around $26,000 in other staff costs, a nearly $9,000 phone bill, $17,000 for postage and shipping and $37,000 for advertising. Their total cash grants came to $745. The recipients are not specified, but apparently those people had their own stamps.

Since Heaton is all over this group's Web site and has certainly been vocal about her participation thus far, I guess it will be up to Walters: Does she want to drag all this baggage on to "The View" with no journalistic moderator? Or will "The View" be totally reshuffled to make room for Heaton, oust the blond girl and Star Jones and still leave room for Joy Behar's refreshing honesty?

The answers should be pretty interesting and say more about Walters in the end than about ABC.