There is no doubt that a probe into the private life of Frank Lloyd Wright, the most famous and influential architect of the first half of the 20th century, has the makings of a good drama. Unfortunately, Richard Nelson, whose plays include the Tony-nominated (1992) “Two Shakespearean Actors” and the Tony Award-winner for Best Book of a Musical (2000), “James Joyce’s The Dead,” doesn’t quite go deep enough into the psychological causes that presumably drive this unsettling three-day period in the life of this visionary artist. Influential and far-sighted as he was, Wright is revealed by Nelson as a man who lacked insight and sensitivity when it came to those closest to him. Too bad that is all we get.
The play takes place in the summer of 1923 as Wright (Peter Weller) is trying to salvage a career that is on a downward spiral. Although he is in his mid-50s and has recently overseen the completion of the impressive Imperial Hotel in Japan, his reputation in America has suffered and waned due to going over budget amid accusations of shoddy design. His decision to leave Chicago and move to California has a twofold purpose. One is to get some new commissions in the growing Hollywood area. The other is an attempt to reconnect with his now adult children: the angry and childish Catherine (Maggie Siff) and the resentful and openly critical Lloyd (Jay Whittaker). Interestingly Lloyd has had a successful career working for Paramount Pictures constructing sets, one of which is notably crumbling (unseen) in the distance. Having abandoned them as well as their mother, who he had married in 1889, Wright is pursuing a rather clumsy course toward bonding with them. This is the heart of the drama.
We soon see that it isn’t in his nature. That he is accompanied by his current inamorata, the emotionally erratic and distraught Miriam Noel (Mary Beth Fisher) and also by his longtime friend and mentor architect Louis Sullivan (Harris Yulin), now a disconsolate out-of-work alcoholic, would seem like fodder for some high voltage revelations and confrontations. The play is at its best, curiously, when Wright rants rather sanctimoniously but also poignantly about the decline of imagination and creativity in the style of architecture that has begun to appear in America.
All the action takes place in the open on a desert-like terrain (the work of designer Thomas Lynch) on the grounds of Olive Hill, Hollywood, California.
Most of the communicating is a balance of accusatory and defensive, with the children providing the former and Wright providing the latter.
In this regard, Weller is stellar as the errant egomaniac whose return is met with skepticism and yet with guarded devotion by his children. Wright hasn’t a clue how to be socially responsive. Okay, so Wright is a genius, but certainly not a nice guy. His attitude toward the needy Miriam is especially baffling. However, Fisher has the most interesting role playing with shades of sanity in the wake of Wright’s fits of pique and threats to leave her.
Director Robert Falls, who is the artistic director of Chicago’s Goodman Theater, where this play premiered this past December, does what he can to keep our interest in characters who are defined by their circuitous kvetching. Siff has the most enigmatic role as Catherine, as she attempts to reach a place in her relationship with her father that doesn’t exist or may have never existed. As Lloyd, Whittaker gets plenty of time to vent but is also the unwitting recipient of his father’s rather long-winded speech on the value of beauty in our lives.
Our empathy is easily re-directed, however, to Yulin, who reveals Sullivan as the most grievously victimized of the lot, who realizes too late that Wright has not brought him to California to work with him, but only as a sounding board and fixture of support. The only unexpected tension comes with the news of an earthquake in Japan that may have resulted in the collapse of Wright’s Hotel Imperial. Whether or not it has weathered the cataclysm because of Wright’s innovative floating foundation is not the play’s most surprising revelation. It is that there are no surprises in the play that makes it disappointing.
There is one role, that of a young, attractive, and totally sincere local school teacher, which makes us feel that there is at least one person who knows how to deal with Wright. It is beautifully played by Holley Fain. After she is propositioned by Wright, she looks right at him and politely says, “I can’t. I — don’t want to. I’m sorry. And I’m tired.” It was a wonderful and honest moment. If exhibiting the flaws in Wright’s personality were enough to make this play insightful it could be considered successful. But perhaps Nelson means to show us how Wright’s wrongs are relatively easy to dismiss in the light of his irreplaceable legacy. 2 stars.
“Frank’s Home,” through Sunday, February 18, Playwrights Horizons, 416 West 42nd Street. $65. 212-279-4200 or www.playwrightshorizons.org.