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The Play Really Is the Thing

And without one, the best actors in the world can’t save you.

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Illustration by Sean McCabe  

At moments during Frank’s Home, you might think you’ve missed the premiere of Richard Nelson’s play and its dutiful first revival and skipped directly to some distant, avant-garde “reimagining.” The long first scene takes place on an ostentatiously raked stage, matted with the sort of crunchy yellow grass you’ll recall from any number of dubious Chekhov productions. The lead actor sometimes mumbles his lines and sometimes shouts them. Women on each side of him behave in strange and inexplicable ways. Now and then, everybody sits around and draws.

If this doesn’t sound like the normally sure-handed director Robert Falls, consider the sketchiness of the play itself. In 1923, the battered (but unhumbled) Frank Lloyd Wright turns up in California to revive his career and face his long-neglected and troublesome relations. His mistress, for one, has problems aplenty—morphine and booze, and a serious issue with volume control—but Nelson’s play never explores them. Nor does it let the talented actors playing Wright’s children do anything more satisfying than work over that familiar tune, “Daddy’s a Hateful Monster and I Love Him So.”

Fortunately, the play isn’t only about Wright’s life; it also treats questions of art and beauty. The connection may not be especially graceful—“I’m not talking about my life. I’m talking about art and beauty!” says Wright—but it’s the only appeal the show’s got. At too-brief intervals, Nelson sets aside his muddled family drama and considers the agonies of architecture, how even the greats see their work compromised by the elements and their clients’ needs. As Wright’s mentor, the gruff, broken-down drunk Louis Sullivan, Harris Yulin underplays beautifully. “I love skyscrapers like a son,” he says, trying, as ever, to pass off a grimace as a smile.

As Wright himself, Peter Weller has chiseled features, an enviably resonant voice, and horrible enunciation, so that he might be some mesmerizing if worse-for-wear hero of the gaslit stage. The description fits best during a bravura speech about a ruined dream project of Wright’s. As Weller circles the stage, reminiscing aloud, the room seems to stop: It’s not just that the audience holds its breath, the lights and walls seem to do the same. I can’t say Weller stays that good for the rest of the show, or that he charts a smooth path as Wright stumbles toward some kind of understanding with the family, but he does register progress of sorts. Having begun the night with the dead-eyed menace of Christopher Walken or Ed Harris, he ends with the ruminative look of Peter O’Toole.

Yasmina Reza’s A Spanish Play, at Classic Stage Company, wants to explore the dignity and peril of the gifted actor’s life. In doing so it imperils the dignity of some gifted actors. A meta-theatrical work—that is, a bad play within a bad play—it travels the same road as Pirandello and Charlie Kaufman, substituting existential Gallic complaint for anything deeply felt or particularly funny. If I’m hard on this play, it’s only payback for breaking my heart, for squandering an awe-inspiring cast.

The exquisite, four-time-Tony-winning Zoe Caldwell returns from a long absence, only to be wasted as a Spanish matriarch. As her widower beau, Larry Pine (the sane center of 2001’s starry Seagull in Central Park) uses every bit of his Texan charm trying to make a building manager anything but tedious. Linda Emond (the Homebody of Tony Kushner’s Homebody/Kabul) is able to invest so much meaning in shades and nuances of character that, even as an incompletely drawn actress here, she makes practiced technique yield a kind of grace. “Why can’t you be reassuring?” she asks her husband, burying him with a look that’s at once pathetic and devastating. In that role, Denis O’Hare—the genius finesser of dialogue, not least in Take Me Out—syncopates a line when he wants us to laugh and hits it hard when he wants us to flinch. (As a math teacher who drinks too much, he makes us do both.) Katherine Borowitz plays Emond’s sister and almost meets the challenge of selling lines like, “What is myself, the actress? Does that exist?”

In occasional flashes, as when O’Hare and Emond flick dialogue like a shuttlecock, you glimpse how extraordinary an evening this might have been. If only it had been managed by a company that really knew how to stage the classics.

Frank’s Home
By Richard Nelson. Playwrights Horizons

A Spanish Play
By Yasmina Reza. Classic Stage Company.


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