Theater Reviews

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Playwrights Horizons, New York
Through Feb. 18


It seems ironic that a play about iconic architect Frank Lloyd Wright is poorly constructed, but such is the case with "Frank's Home."

The good news is that Peter Weller's portrayal of Wright makes up for a multitude of sins. The actor might be best-known from his "RoboCop" films, but he's utterly convincing as America's most famous designer of houses and furniture, depicted here in his mid-50s and with more than a bit of world-weariness.

The setting is Hollywood 1923, where Wright has just designed two new structures and is working on a third. He's also trying to reconnect with his son and daughter, both of whom have long resented the physical and emotional distance their father has maintained.

Then again, Wright keeps all at a distance, excepting when he strikes out at anyone who annoys him. At this particular juncture, those unfortunate enough to raise his ire include his two grown children (Jay Whittaker and Maggie Siff); an alcoholic, ultra-needy mistress (Mary Beth Fisher); a protege who's treated like a servant (Jeremy Strong); Wright's straight-arrow son-in-law (Chris Henry Coffey); a pretty tenant for one of Wright's new homes (Holley Fain); and the mentor who's been a lifelong alliance, the once-successful Louis Sullivan (Harris Yulin).

If it sounds like one needs a scorecard for the players, there's good reason. And if it also sounds like things get a bit unfocused, there's reason for that, too. Viewers quickly discern that Wright isn't a nice person, but one needn't witness a whole stable of whipping boys to get the point.

Of course, that wouldn't be so bad if the dialogue crackled. It doesn't. Although playwright Richard Nelson is well-regarded for his adaptation of the musical version of "James Joyce's The Dead," he's off his game here, settling for way too much explanatory dialogue and cliched developments. Worse, characters like the buffoonish son-in-law are one-dimensional.

Neither is director Robert Falls in top form, as he's never able to kick the proceedings out of third gear. Given the subject matter, it's amazing that an overwhelming cloud of torpor always seems a passage or two away. In addition, his handling of a late-in-the-action rendition of Gilbert and Sullivan's "The Major-General's Song" is borderline embarrassing. Only once, during a climactic exchange between Wright and Sullivan, does the material deliver a poignance that resonates.

Even the set -- a square of grass tufts that's occasionally elevated on one end, hovered over by a rectangle meant to signify shifting skies -- seems lackluster.

And then the former RoboCop enters to save the day. Weller proves a commanding presence in each of his scenes, whether twirling his walking stick with masterly flourish or using his cocky swagger to intimidate all in his sphere. His seemingly effortless mix of pride, vulnerability and villainy is remarkable.

The cast's other standout is the ever-reliable Yulin as the down-and-out Sullivan. His sad eyes and perpetual attempt to maintain false bravado is note-perfect.

Accordingly, the production is a proverbial mixed bag. As much as one applauds Weller and Yulin, there's no getting around the fact that "Home" needs a solid foundation.

FRANK'S HOME
Presented by Playwrights Horizons
Credits:
Playwright: Richard Nelson
Director: Robert Falls
Set designer: Thomas Lynch
Costume designer: Susan Hilferty
Lighting designer: Michael Philippi
Original music/sound designer: Richard Woodbury
Cast:
Frank Lloyd Wright: Peter Weller
Louis Sullivan: Harris Yulin
Catherine: Maggie Siff
Lloyd: Jay Whittaker
William: Jeremy Strong
Kenneth: Chris Henry Coffey
Helen Girvin: Holley Fain
Miriam Noel: Mary Beth Fisher
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