Awkwardness is the operative word for Richard Nelson’s “Franny’s Way” at the Geffen Playhouse. It’s a play about awkward characters in awkward situations. It’s also an awkward play, awkwardly directed and awkwardly performed.
Awkwardness in the performances is exactly what a delicate, even frail, play like this can’t afford. “Franny’s Way” requires a type of naturalism that can potentially draw an audience into scenes of normalcy and then shatter the status quo with devastating force. That’s exactly what Nelson, who also directs, is going for in his opening scene, where a young couple, Sally (Susan May Pratt) and Phil (Jesse Pennington), engage in an extended moment of post-coital naked togetherness in their Greenwich Village walk-up. At the end of the scene, with no warning at all, Sally discovers that their infant daughter has died.
It should be a harrowing moment, but it’s not. There’s just something fake about the whole scene. And that fakeness rarely lifts for the entire evening, which seems to last much longer than the 90-minute running time.
The play is narrated after that opening scene (awkwardly, by the way) from the perspective of Older Franny (Penny Fuller), who looks back on the summer of 1957. Soon after the death of the baby, Sally’s grandmother Marjorie, also played by Fuller, brings Sally’s two young cousins, Franny (“The West Wing’s” Elisabeth Moss) and younger sister Dolly (Domenica Cameron-Scorsese), to visit with the hope of cheering her up.
Franny, who at the (awkward) age of 17 has replaced the “matronly and phony” moniker of Frances with her new, Salinger-inspired, nickname, isn’t really coming to New York to comfort her cousin — she’s too self-absorbed for such an act of kindness. She’s planning to see her college boyfriend, with whom she has recently lost her virginity. It turns out that Dolly also has ulterior plans that involve meeting up with the girls’ mother, who left their father for another man and has been barred from contact with her children. The offstage meeting is indeed awkward — particularly for Marjorie.
Meanwhile, the tender relationship between Sally and Phil that we witnessed (or were supposed to have witnessed) in the opening scene has turned to mutual distaste, with Phil refusing even to touch his wife, whose desire for his affection has reached a stage of desperation. Throw in an attractive young girl with a coming-of-age story to experience and it’s not hard to see where this might go.
We discover most of the plot either through the narration or through cliched scenes in which one person overhears another; other times it’s simply the characters being together, bickering, sharing moments of discomfort over their mostly unspoken grief.
It’s a significant misfire for the usually reliable Nelson, who has moved from writing plays with significant substance (“The General From America,” “Two Shakespearean Actors”) to slight coming-of-age stories (“Madame Melville,” which starred Macaulay Culkin in London and New York, and now “Franny’s Way”).
Everything about this play feels contrived; the actors, try as they may, simply can’t make it believable. Pratt, in easily the toughest and most central role of Sally, comes off least well, speaking at a squeaky-high register and giving off a breathy giggle at the end of nearly every line to signal the character’s effort to force a happy facade. Moss, too, seems perpetually smiling, not as a character choice but from an actor’s onstage tension.