If the characters in James Lapine’s new play seem familiar, it’s no wonder. They are the broad-brushed people facing life’s traumas whom we’ve met many times before onstage, in film and especially on daytime TV. This is in part intentional: Lapine places the banalities of his characters beside the soap operas that main character Fran loves to watch on TV. But to what end? Does he mean to suggest life is as contrived, tedious and generic as the stories on TV? The answer isn’t clear in this postmodern take on “One Life to Live,” which even the radiance of Mia Farrow (as Fran) cannot illuminate.
Lapine’s intermissionless work, receiving its world premiere at Long Wharf Theater’s Stage II, is a shattered memory play about a woman coming to terms with the days of her life. The familiar themes are marriage, adultery and death, but Lapine’s nonlinear approach doesn’t help freshen them up.
There is little specificity in his portrayal of a family coping with the sudden illness and impending death of mother and wife Fran. Lapine seems to purposely (and perversely) leave this iconic family underdeveloped. Reality and soap-opera life literally merge in one scene, when the play’s characters are suddenly projected simultaneously on TV sets. But everyone knows all too well that life is not a TV show, families aren’t perfect and deaths aren’t easy.
The actors each seem to have their own interpretation of the play. Each takes a different approach to its shifts in tone. Harris Yulin, as Fran’s husband, gives a lugubrious perf, in contrast with the frantic efforts of Carrie Preston as Fran’s long-suffering, hypertense daughter. Kellie Overbey strikes a middle ground as the prodigal sibling, a Hollywood dealmaker whose presence allows for some feeble cell phone jokes and a few digs at Sharon Stone.
Brenda Pressley plays it as straightforward as possible as Dolly, who tends to the bedridden Fran and shares her religious beliefs. Marcia DeBonis seems unsure of whether to play it for laughs or sincerity as “the saleslady from hospice,” so she plays it both ways. Christopher Innvar makes the most of his moment as Fran’s insurance exec lover.
It’s good to see Farrow back onstage, and her genuineness and star presence are not to be denied. Dressed in a flowing white nightgown, she looks angelic, and you can’t keep your eyes off her. Sometimes Farrow’s line readings strike a surreal note, at other times she’s heartbreaking. “I just have this involuntary urge to scream,” says Fran, after unleashing a blood-curdling wail when she is in bed with her lover. It’s a harrowing moment, as disconnected as it is disconcerting.
But too much in the play feels disconnected. Fran may be exploring the many roles she has played in her life, but it would be nice for an audience to bond with at least one of them. Instead, we sympathize when she says, “I feel out of place most everywhere.”
The production moves smoothly on Douglas Stein’s efficient and clinical set. Special kudos to Matthew Mungle’s creation of Farrow’s coma double, whose chest subtly moves with each breath. At times, it seems to have more real life than the play does.