Home is an elusive destination - even (or perhaps especially) when it's where you're living. And for the world's preeminent architect, who designs visionary houses and hotels yet can't organize his personal life into one resembling comfort, the pain must be especially piercing. But you don't need to be Frank Lloyd Wright, or even to have seen or visited one of his buildings, to find a cozy refuge in Frank's Home, Richard Nelson's new play at Playwrights Horizons. In this, his crispest and most rewarding play in years, Nelson makes having nothing seem like having everything.
In case you hadn't guessed, the Frank of the title is indeed Wright - the man around whom everything is going wrong. Rebelling children. An unstable mistress. An aging colleague desperately in need of work to make him feel young. The Imperial Hotel in Tokyo, which he designed, being decimated by an earthquake just as work has slowed to a mere trickle in the States. And, worst of all, the impossibility of untangling any of these problems long enough to deal with the others.
Yet as directed by Robert Falls, this production - hailing direct from Chicago's Goodman Theatre - never allows its characters or the audience to wallow in the anger and self-pity suffusing the lives of Frank (a daring, diffident Peter Weller), his brood, and their visitors. Instead, the hostilities simmering just below the surface and occasionally rising above it sketch out a strangely full family unit for a group this unable to deal with the routine changes of everyday life. Even when they're silent about what's bothering them and why, the dialogue they conduct paradoxically suggests they're better adjusted than many families who talk to each other at dinner every night.
That earthquake, though it struck many thousands of miles away from Frank's Olive Hill, Hollywood, dwelling, might cause the cracks that could cause the family to collapse for good. Frank's daughter Catherine (Maggie Siff) and son Lloyd (Jay Whittaker) see the hotel's reported destruction as proof that their father's reign of professional prominence is over, and their lack of patience for his younger girlfriend Miriam (Mary Beth Fisher) is only exacerbated by his still being married to (if separated from) their mother.
Not that that will stop Catherine and her money-handling husband Kenneth (Chris Henry Coffey) from throwing a little work Frank's way, on an addition for their own house as well as the houses of others. After all, all the indications are that Frank is heading down the same road currently traversed by the formerly renowned Louis Sullivan (Harris Yulin), whose own brilliant buildings are now passť, and who is all but reduced to begging for work from the ostensibly more successful Frank. Frank, like Louis, needs the help of others, even if he doesn't want it.
But the world of architecture isn't any more predictable than the Wrights themselves, so what everyone knows and doesn't know about Frank changes several times over the course of this taut, 100-minute evening. And in charting the emotional lives of these people and the events that alternately draw them together and rip them apart, Nelson never succumbs to the temptations of obvious plotting and falsely fraught feelings that prevented his recent plays Rodney's Wife and Franny's Way from registering as relatable slices of family life. (Reducing the pretension level, mostly by way of stripping the script of ham-handed literary allusions and turning over directing chores to the more sensitive Falls, also hasn't hurt.)
Each of the relationships in Frank's Home, however, is simply and realistically realized in both word and performance. Nelson's crowning achievement is the poignant father-son, mentor-mentee bond between the fading Louis and the stalling Frank: Yulin, who movingly blends strength and fragility into a man who's is neither obviously keeping nor losing his faculties, and the blithely brusque Weller conquer a remarkable scene near evening's end, in which they demonstrate the impact of their work on their ordinary lives, that cleverly encapsulates the play's central subject about how artists can be misunderstood and underappreciated by those closest to them.
Yet the carefully calculated cold-shouldering Whittaker and Siff bring to Frank's children's treatment of Miriam (Fisher strikes just the right notes as a hyper-homey space case) no less delicately delineates their roles in Frank's drama. When they take center stage during the play's tender and tentative Gilbert-and-Sullivan-driven climax, both actors gracefully highlight the colors in the children's love for their father that they so instinctively suppress during the rest of the show.
Some stumbling blocks remain: The roles of a lovely neighboring schoolteacher and Wright's stalwart assistant, respectively played by Holley Fain and Jeremy Strong, are too much on the outside to contribute much to this heavily insider story. The pacing drags in several scenes. Production-wise, Thomas Lynch's scenic design is almost parodically uninspired in the ways it doesn't attempt to evoke or even suggest Wright's artistry.
That may be the point. Beneath the famous name is a real man who can't be summed up merely by his drawings and the buildings created from them, and who will eventually be defined by the company he kept. Time may have washed away many of the names and faces Nelson summons in Frank's Home, but warts or otherwise they were more than enough to construct a life - and this quietly beautiful play - around.