Frank Lloyd Wright, the architectural visionary who endured a roller-coaster career and an oft-troubled personal life, seems a ripe subject for dramatic exploration, but you would never know it from Richard Nelson’s bafflingly banal drama “Frank’s Home.” While it views Wright at a turning point in his life — when he faced potential failure in both personal and professional terms — Nelson’s play seems stuck in the territory of family dysfunction and pettiness, which proves far too modest a framework for a subject who reconceived the spaces in which we live.
Nelson sets the play during three days in 1923, when Wright was in his mid-50s. He has recently returned from Japan after completing the mammoth Imperial Hotel. Finding his career stalled in America due to too many leaky roofs and blown budgets, he has relocated from Chicago to California to find commissions and reconnect with now-grown children Catherine (Maggie Siff) and Lloyd (Jay Whittaker), abandoned when he left their mother years ago.
Perhaps the most ambitious element of Nelson’s timid play (which moves to Playwrights Horizons in New York after its premiere run at the Goodman) is that all the action takes place outdoors, with the set made up to represent Olive Hill in Hollywood (the site now known as the Barnsdall Art Park). Wright (Peter Weller) is working on a schoolhouse there to accompany the residence known as Hollyhock House. (“I never get to choose the names,” he mourns.)
We don’t see these structures in Thomas Lynch’s set, composed of a raked playing area covered in dried, desert-appropriate grass, and a narrow horizontal screen in the background with a dim outline of the Hollywood Hills. Images of trees can be seen in screens on the sides of the stage and, using wallpaper, on the balconies in the audience, an interesting effort at a Wright-like natural landscape that unfortunately comes off as gratuitous and gimmicky.
Perhaps something more visually striking, better at capturing Wright’s contributions or fascinations with nature, would make Nelson’s outdoor choice feel more purposeful. As is, this just seems like any old location, where the characters mostly stare into space when they’re not screaming at Wright or being screamed at, or just impatiently bearing his various pontifications: “Sometimes,” he intones as the play begins, “I think I am America.”
Weller’s portrayal certainly captures an egomaniac capable of great charm, great cruelty and, at times, great self-delusion. He can move from soothing to screaming without need for transition — Wright, in his hands, doesn’t seem to care all that much about his emotional impact on people. He’s one cold fish.
Nelson tries to create some heat around him, but the family interactions all feel like manufactured kitchen-sink drama. Catherine longs for her father to dump his unstable longtime mistress, Miriam Noel (Mary Beth Fisher), which he temporarily does.
In Siff’s portrayal, Catherine’s anger that her father has turned up and thinks he can make up for lost time soon turns to a desperate desire to re-create moments of her childhood. She’s an odd character, and even under director Robert Falls’ usually steady hand, we’re not quite sure whether she’s supposed to be as emotionally childish as she comes across.
Lloyd, meanwhile, suffers under his father’s giant shadow and petulantly glories in any potential comeuppance. He’s forever the practical one — “The roof leaks,” he says, whenever anyone praises Hollyhock House. This attitude allows Frank to lecture him on the importance of beauty.
If “Frank’s Home” is supposed to be simply a psychological study of an artist who could make a home for others but never for himself, who couldn’t help but leave in his wake emotionally wrecked progeny, then it needs a great deal more nuance to be emotionally affecting.
The most watchable actor is Harris Yulin as Louis Sullivan, Wright’s one-time mentor, now broke and alone after an esteemed career. It’s an unfortunate fate that just might befall Wright as well, particularly when first news reports arrive of an earthquake in Japan and the possible collapse of the Imperial, a structure he built on an innovative floating foundation to avoid just such an event.
This seems to be Nelson’s primary concern — a great artist staring into the abyss of failure and refusing to acknowledge it. Perhaps Nelson sees this trait as Wright’s defining characteristic, that he could stare down his defeats and, internally at least, see them as successes.
The centerpiece of the show is a long monologue that Weller delivers late in the play about a project plagued by an unscrupulous builder and a complicated client that somehow still works out. Weller delivers it with a combination of languor and strong narrative clarity, and Yulin — so compelling just sitting there disheveled and dusty and drunk — listens to it brilliantly. But, like the rest of “Frank’s Home,” the monologue just doesn’t seem to have that much to say.