The the first time since its premiere in 1954, is that if you believe hard enough, you can make dreams come true.
But the problem with this production is that it does not believe in itself hard enough.
For all the excellence of the cast headed by Woody Harrelson and Jayne Atkinson, Nash's dream world never feels entirely true.
Most plays try to create that feeling by being as real as possible. But "The Rainmaker" is not one of them.
It is set somewhere in the rural Midwest in 1936.
But that place is, quite deliberately, much closer to the Kansas of "The Wizard of Oz" than the dustbowl of "The Grapes of Wrath."
You might expect, for example, that a play set mostly on a drought-stricken ranch during the Depression would have a strong sense of economic despair.
But the Curry family of "The Rainmaker" is obsessed, not with survival, but with the marriage prospects of their plain daughter, Lizzie.
So when the con man Starbuck arrives, promising to bring rain to the parched fields, the family is much more interested in what he might bring to Lizzie's arid life.
We are dealing, in other words, with a grownup, down-at-heels version of "Sleeping Beauty," in which Atkinson's Lizzie is to be rescued from endless slumber by Harrelson's handsome prince. The challenge for the director is to lift us into that fairy-tale realm.
Scott Ellis has some terrific actors on his side. With Jerry Hardin, David Aaron Baker, John Bedford Lloyd and Randle Mell giving precise, confident performances, there is, behind Atkinson and Harrelson, a tremendous depth of talent.
Atkinson's Lizzie, moreover, is a truly persuasive portrayal of a woman whose personality is still struggling to emerge full of both illusions and hard-headed skepticism.
With such strong performances around him, Harrelson's Starbuck is a little less extraordinary than he might be. We don't quite see the glow of charisma that allows him to transfix the people he meets. But his mixture of revivalist fervor and boyish vulnerability has its own charm. Like Atkinson, he has a fascinating openness.
And yet, with all these strengths, the production doesn't ever attain the magic and wonder the play demands.
A key problem is that time has been cruel to the sexual assumptions central to "The Rainmaker."
In 1954, the play's insistence that a one-night stand with a stranger might uplift an unmarried woman must have carried a high-voltage charge. And the belief that drives the plot that a woman without a man hardly exists at all was not so hard to take.
Today, the only way to make such notions feel real would be to transport us into a completely theatrical world; for all its virtues, Ellis' production doesn't even begin that journey.
When the rain does come, it seems like a light, sweet shower rather than the cloudburst of dreams it's supposed to be.
A farm family - father, two sons, spinster daughter - in the Midwest, 1936. It's dry, mighty dry. Along comes a charismatic con man promising rain for $100. The family, initially skeptical, quickly succumbs to the trickster's spiel. Or is he a trickster?
Such is the deal in N. Richard Nash's "The Rainmaker," which was a 1954 play with Geraldine Page and Darren McGavin, a 1956 movie with Katharine Hepburn and Burt Lancaster, and a 1998 revival in Williamstown, directed by Scott Ellis.
The Ellis production and cast are now on Broadway, except that the title role of Bill Starbuck is now played by Woody Harrelson.
The play, although set in 1936, reeks of the 1950s. The sexy ne'er-do-well who sashays into an area and awakens its somnolent females was patented by William Inge in "Picnic" in 1953. A lot of "The Rainmaker" tastes like Inge and water.
The spinster who is too intelligent for the locals and doubts her femininity was a 1950s cliche; think of Hepburn in "Summertime" and Joanne Woodward in "The Long, Hot Summer." The couple in "Marty" were a variant of this theme.
Also very '50s is the notion that a night of good sex will solve everything. "Take down your hair," says Starbuck to "old maid" Lizzie before carrying her to (I think) the hayloft for a liberating romp.
Starbuck (the name comes from "Moby Dick") may or may not be a rainmaker, but he is a pop psychologist par excellence. "Believe in yourself" and "dare to dream" are his messages. You're not dumb, he assures Jim, the goofy kid brother. You're not plain, he assures Lizzie.
And in trice, everybody on the farm is feeling good about themselves. I tell you, if Starbuck could stay out of jail, he could make a mint giving advice on the radio.
Ellis, who recently directed a "Picnic" that was moved back to the 1930s, uses a heavy hand here. When they're not engaged in fussy business like setting tables and washing dishes, the characters tend to freeze and listen to long speeches.
James Noone's stylized, bare set seems designed for something like "Oklahoma!" rather than for this musical manqu (which was later musicalized in "110 in the Shade").
Harrelson, who is a natural - easy and funny - on screen, doesn't quite have his stage legs here. He has star presence, but his technique is rigid and awkward. He speaks in sing-song rhythms, moves stiffly, accompanies his words with illustrative gestures (as in charades), and stresses the last words of sentences.
The good news, however, is that this weak Starbuck shifts focus to two terrific performers. Jayne Atkinson is a lovely Lizzie, bright and tentative and tender. The way she touches her dress, the way she moves and smiles, all create a real human being living in this place.
As an introverted local sheriff embittered by an earlier marriage, Randle Mell does wonders with a smallish role. Out from the man's granite gloominess slowly breaks a warm heart. The scene between the sheriff and Lizzie, as the two shy loners edge gingerly toward each other, is by far the play's best. And the final confrontation between these two is genuinely moving (and more mature than anything in Inge). Here's the softer, deeper play Nash ought to have written.
As the puppyish, horny, dopey, bouncy kid brother, David Aaron Baker applies his considerable charm and technique, but the character is slight and tiresome.
"The Rainmaker" is a dated curiosity that there was no compelling reason to revive.
Did you hear the one about the old maid and the traveling salesman? Groan if you will, but there was a time when the question summed up not only a whole species of smutty jokes but also a gentler genre of romantic comedies. You know the formula, which was given its most popular incarnation in ''The Music Man'': flashy con artist meets buttoned-up spinster; sparks fly; she makes him honest, he makes her fun.
As fables of life-altering love go, this prototype now has all the electricity of a manual typewriter. But if it's told by the right tellers, it can still generate sentimental goose bumps, and one can only be grateful that Woody Harrelson and Jayne Atkinson have been assigned that task in the Roundabout Theater Company's smooth, mild-mannered revival of ''The Rainmaker,'' N. Richard Nash's play from 1954, which opened last night at the Brooks Atkinson Theater.
As Lizzie Curry and Starbuck, the plain midlands farm woman and the fancy dream peddler who meet during a drought in the 1930's, these first-class actors find freshening currents in what could have been a stagnant pond of an evening. Performers of very different professional histories, they are not an obvious match.
Ms. Atkinson, an artisan of natural radiance and filigree stage technique, is much cherished by theater connoisseurs, rather as her contemporary Cherry Jones is. Mr. Harrelson is a fascinatingly combustible screen presence (''Natural Born Killers,'' ''The People vs. Larry Flynt'') who also floats in the immortality of television syndication as the lovably dim bartender of ''Cheers.''
Yet it is the very contrasts between the two that make this ''Rainmaker,'' directed with plenty of polish and little imagination by Scott Ellis, worth sitting through. Ms. Atkinson and Mr. Harrelson ply their respective strengths to give unexpected and subtle spins to characters stamped firmly by Geraldine Page and Darren McGavin (in the original Broadway production) and Katharine Hepburn and Burt Lancaster (in the 1956 movie).
When they cozy up in a barn loft at the end of the play's second act, with Mr. Harrelson playing irresistible force to Ms. Atkinson's immovable object, their characters' mutual seduction becomes an appetizing counterpoint of theatrical styles. Mr. Harrelson, bounding and slithering across the stage like an overgrown gymnast, is loose, loopy and a little out of control. Ms. Atkinson is as still as a painting, but her carefully modulated facial expressions are just as eloquent as his physical exuberance.
As the scene progresses, there is the sense of a delicate exchange, a sentimental education, going on between the performers as well as the characters they play. It's more sweet than sexy, but that sweetness has its own emotional force.
That moment, it must be admitted, is a long time coming. ''A popular comedy without artistic pretensions'' was how the New York Times critic Brooks Atkinson (yes, the man for whom the theater is named) summed up ''The Rainmaker'' when it opened 45 years ago, and the years have only confirmed the faintness of the praise.
Mr. Nash's construction is as clean, clear and shiny as a newly washed window, with every metaphor, plot turn and bit of comedy fully evident from a first reading of the script. You can see why ''The Rainmaker'' has long been a staple of community and school theaters, if not, with its insistence on how a man's love completes a too independent woman, a special favorite of feminists.
This same clarity and directness can also make the play slow going these days. ''The Rainmaker'' spends a lot of words in making its self-evident points and arriving at its predetermined conclusions. To captivate an audience entirely, any staging, Mr. Nash writes in his introduction to the script, must focus ''through a romantically gauzed lens.'' There is scarcely a hint of gauziness in Mr. Ellis's forthright staging.
James Noone's handsome, panoramic setting, which with its vistas of wheat field and big skies directly recalls the recent London revival of ''Oklahoma!,'' isn't really conducive to the spinning of private dreams. Louis Rosen's incidental guitar music seems more appropriate to a suspenseful western movie than romantic reverie. And the nicely observed, gritty physical details, from the dirt on the men's trousers to the sweat that soaks Jess Goldstein's period costumes, sometimes undercuts the fairy tale tenor of the play.
Similarly the supporting actors, while all entirely professional, only rarely tear through the stock cloth from which their characters are cut. The comic eagerness with which Lizzie's father (Jerry Hardin) and brothers (David Aaron Baker and John Bedford Lloyd) consider the possibilities of marrying her off can be frankly tedious. There are several strongly played moments of domestic confrontation, yet their fierce naturalism is not of a piece with the rest of the evening.
Mr. Lloyd brings admirable consistency and restraint to the role of the aspiration-withering pragmatist of the family, and Randle Mell is fine as Lizzie's deeply ambivalent suitor. But it's Ms. Atkinson, who played the same part at the Williamstown Theater Festival in 1998, who must hold the show together, and she does so with anchoring skill and confidence.
Like Janet McTeer in the memorable Broadway revival of ''A Doll's House'' in 1997, Ms. Atkinson finds the unconscious actress in a character who has adopted a role she doesn't even know she is playing anymore. Arms folded, mouth set firmly in a skeptical smile, this Lizzie has a gruffly affable persona that seems to have come from growing up in a household of men. When the more fragile Lizzie peeks through, it's heart-rending.
And unlike Ms. Hepburn (and one assumes from descriptions, Ms. Page), Ms. Atkinson sidesteps high-key mannerisms to create a sturdy facade of plainness rippled with small signs of discontent, which together make Lizzie's transformation both inevitable and surprising. Her Lizzie also never completely loses her self-possession, thus avoiding the unpleasant suggestion that all this up-tight lady needed was a good roll in the hay.
Mr. Harrelson's Starbuck, the self-styled rainmaker who arrives to relieve both climatic and emotional droughts, is less a hypnotic Spielmeister than a clumsy provincial idealist desperate to believe in his own fantasies. You can feel Starbuck trying to convince himself, as well as others, through the sheer energy he pours into his improbable promises. Like Lizzie, he lacks confidence, just of a different sort, which gives a warming balance to their scenes together.
You might remember that another admired Hollywood actor showed up last season on Broadway as a fast-talking salesman who deals in pipe dreams, though his business was to shatter rather than encourage them. That was Kevin Spacey in ''The Iceman Cometh,'' and though Mr. Harrelson has less meat to chew than Mr. Spacey did, he has still found a way of melding psychological nuance with the expansiveness of gesture that the stage demands.
The talent flow between theater and film is not, it turns out, a one-way street. The recent live performances of celluloid idols like Mr. Harrelson and Mr. Spacey -- not to mention those of Ethan Hawke, Matthew Broderick, Marisa Tomei, Nicole Kidman and Annette Bening -- have all confirmed this most hearteningly. Attention, movie stars with strong lungs and nerves to match: come on in; the water's fine.