nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
January 28, 2007
Frank's Home, the new play by Richard Nelson at Playwrights Horizons, is about Frank Lloyd Wright. The title is meant to be ironic: Wright, perhaps the most famous architect ever, designed dozens of homes beautifully but never was able to make one for himself. All of the action takes place outside, on a California hillside, reminding us that Wright, who built all of those homes for people to live in, never was able to make one for himself.
If you thought I just repeated myself there, you're right. Nelson repeats himself over and over again in Frank's Home. Not that the piece is purely one-note: when it's not demonstrating the paradox of Wright's existence, it's showing us what a monstre sacre he was—a mean, selfish, rude man who alienates everybody who loves him (though they sometimes hang on/come back because of his fame and/or magnetism). Nelson's point seems to be that geniuses are impossible to live with, or greatness excuses meanness, or geniuses are self-indulgent but it's okay...something like that.
This is not, as you've probably realized, a good play. The story line traces three days in Wright's life, in the late summer of 1923. He's just arrived in Los Angeles to complete work on a school called Hollyhock House. His daughter Catherine, whom he has not seen in 16 years, is angry at his sudden appearance (and at his undisguised flirtation with Helen Girvin, who runs the school Wright has designed and that Catherine's daughter will attend). Wright's son, Lloyd, who lives in California also, has a more complicated love/hate relationship with his father. Wright's mistress, the singularly unpleasant Miriam Noel, is also present, as is his mentor Louis Sullivan; both of these individuals are sadly dependent on alcohol (Sullivan claims never to eat as he swigs down swallow after swallow from his hip flask) and perhaps also on Wright, though neither seems to be entirely certain just why they're here in California.
In between the family squabbles and Wright's woman troubles comes harrowing news: the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo, Wright's most recent architectural triumph, touted as indestructible, has apparently collapsed in an earthquake, killing many people. This catastrophe seems to trouble Wright's pride rather than his conscience, which Lloyd has great difficulty understanding (and so did I). However, this whole plot thread turns out to be a red herring, because—and this did not come as a surprise to those of us in the audience who were pretty sure that Frank Lloyd Wright didn't design buildings that fell down—the hotel is revealed not to have collapsed in the final scene. Wright's reputation and genius remain untarnished, though from what we've seen of him, there's little else to admire in this man save his talent.
The whole affair has very little substance, as far as I could see; and it's not even rendered believably, with the dialogue coming across as stilted and the psychology of the characters woefully unconvincing: Catherine, for example, shifts mind-bogglingly from childish resentment of her absent father to slavish adoration; Miriam is downright nasty to Wright's kids in Scene 1 and then worries tearfully whether they like her in Scene 6.
Robert Falls's staging is agonizingly sluggish, an effect exacerbated by the mannered, self-indulgent performance of Peter Weller in the title role. All angular poses and long, inappropriate pauses, Weller's portrayal feels like the Method gone mad, and becomes nearly excruciating to watch. Only Harris Yulin, as Sullivan, creates a recognizably human character; the tragedy of Wright's neglected mentor is far more interesting than the petty manipulations of Wright himself.
Thomas Lynch has placed the thing on a showy hillside set that does tricks (it shifts perspective, sloping downstage for some scenes and upstage for others); but on either side, there are what look like marble steps abutting the grass most unnaturally, permitting the actors to enter and exit without killing themselves I suppose, but breaking the illusion of outdoors quite irrevocably.
Frank's Home is, in sum, a serious disappointment; dare I say—and I try never to even think this about a play—a waste of pretty much everybody involved's time.