It's not correct to say that the first few minutes of Franny's Way set the tone for all that is to come.
Richard Nelson's new play at the Atlantic Theater, under the auspices of Playwright's Horizons, does start with the offstage sounds of a couple having sex. And, yes, it is followed almost immediately by both actors coming onstage - naked - and wandering around for a few minutes before discovering their baby is dead.
These moments do little more than suggest that Franny's Way has so little to offer that it must jolt the audience members out of their seats right away with nudity completely unrelated to the story. Unfortunately, that proves to be exactly the case. There's little of real value in Franny's Way, though it attempts to be profound. It purports to be a story about growing up and moving on with life in 1957, but life is the one thing conspicuously absent from the lives of its characters.
Granted, in the case of Sally and Phil (Yvonne Woods and Jesse Pennington, who open the show as mentioned above), that's the point - they lost their baby, and have not yet begun to deal with their loss. When 17 year-old Franny (Elisabeth Moss), her sister Dolly (Domenica Cameron-Scorsese), and grandmother Marjorie (Kathleen Widdoes), visit them at their Greenwich Village apartment that summer, no one can escape the unhappy, dark aspects of life.
Nelson inflicts upon his characters include, after the death of the baby, a number of events of tragedy, in astonishingly quick succession. First love, betrayal, resentment, depression, divorce, incest, and pedophilia are all touched upon. The characters are barely able to deal with tragedy after tragedy, and Nelson's solution to their ills is so quick to come about, you may feel as though you missed something. The play ends before it ever really gets started.
But for this, Nelson must be blamed, as he also directed Franny's Way. He's excellent at allowing the audience to experience the same sense of ennui as the characters, but almost never lightens things up. The dark moments are robbed of their potential impact because there are so many of them in such quick succession. Though Franny's Way runs barely an hour and forty minutes, it feels much longer.
Most of the performances don't help. Moss is filled with appropriate angst as Franny, but none of the joy, while Cameron-Scorsese - whose character is supposed to be two years younger than Franny - almost always comes across as older and wiser. Pennington and Woods let their nude scenes define their characters too much, and include little depth in their relationship with each other, something Nelson's script makes far too easy.
The redeeming force of Franny's Way is Kathleen Widdoes, who plays both Franny's grandmother and an older version of Franny herself. Widdoes is very warm and likable, with texture and humor that set her apart from the other people onstage. As Franny, she does little more than narrate events, but brings a real sense of truth and life to her that Moss simply isn't able to project. She's equally impressive as the exasperated matriarch trying to hold her family together.
When Widdoes is onstage, it's easy to forget that not all of Franny's Way is as joyous and effortless as her scenes seem to be. Widdoes makes every event in the show she touches seem miles away from oppression and tragedy, so it's difficult not to wish Richard Nelson had the same ability.