Frank's Home by Richard Nelson
The Last Word by Oren Safdie
The Fever by Wallace Shawn

Reviewed by David Spencer

Here's the description of Frank's Home off the Goodman Theatre website:

     "It is summer, 1923, and architect Frank Lloyd Wright has recently left Chicago for California, determined to embrace Hollywood's youthful zest and mend broken relationships with his adult children.

     He has recently completed his latest 'wonder of the world'—Tokyo's Imperial Hotel—and is poised to settle down and embrace his new home. But his splintered family still holds deep-seated resentments. Then news arrives of an earthquake in Japan that has leveled his prized hotel. Or has it? A stunning new play from one of America's best contemporary playwrights, Frank's Home is a lyrical, heartbreaking story about one of our greatest, if less than perfect, visionaries—a man who created a new architectural vocabulary but couldn't create a home for himself and his family."

     Would that the new play by Richard Nelson currently at Playwrights Horizons (a co-production with Chicago's Goodman) were quite as compelling as that thumbnail. But the gathering of personalities—overlooking the site of another of Wright's commissions, a schoolhouse—does little save offer cameo glimpses into troubled relationships long in progress, and clearly in no danger of healing anytime soon. An admirable but cool performance by Peter Weller as Wright, and a more sympathetic one by Harris Yulin as a colleague and friend in need of work, give the play its only grounding; the text seems to meander through yet another portrait under the category Great Artist, Shitty Human Being. Without offering up anything worth learning for the trouble of putting up with him

     More aggressively obnoxious, but somewhat more engaging (even bordering on an abrasive charm) is Henry Gruenwald, an aspiring octogenarian playwright, interviewing a prospective new, young assistant in Oren Safdie's The Last Word...

     The situation is a bit too much of a contrivance to buy into completely: Gruenwald, a German Jewish immigrant who has abandoned a thriving advertising firm for art in a dingy office, is clearly a hack (not untalented but a purveyor of well-worn clich_s); while the young Len Artz is a college student writer into new wave method training that shuns the classics or grounding in literature. Safdie may have intended this collision of mutually exclusive ideologies as a kind of Shavian dialectic, but it seems instead like a sitcom that keeps threatening to work, but doesn't quite.

     That said, it doesn't bore either, and the laughs it gets at the Theatre at St. Clements, however modest, are pretty constant. Those whose sharpest memories of Daniel J. Travanti are his portrait of Captain Furillo in Hill Street Blues are in for a shock (that begins with a shock of white hair pulled back to almost a lion's mane) as he immerses himself totally in the Gruenwald persona; it's a charismatic and convincing enough immersion to sell you on the notion that Travanti as a New York stage presence is not a bad idea. And how much you enjoy Adam Green as his foil may depend upon your tolerance for the character. Mr. Green plays charmless naivete accurately enough, but it's easy to lose patience with a fuck-the-establishment attitude that feels a little dated. The direction, by Alex Lippard, is about as invisible as it ought to be.

     Wallace Shawn's The Fever, a one man play that debuted in 1990, originally written to be performed by him in living rooms, features an anonymous man who recounts waking up in a hotel room in a war-torn country, fever raging through him. Hunched over the toilet, his mind starts to spin out in uncontrollable free-associative rumination (so he tells us from a soft chair in a comfortable living room) and he examines the links between American affluence taken for granted and the poverty-stricken workers who fuel it. A testament to Mr. Shawn's performance and wit is that he keeps this from getting dull, as even in his hands, a little of this goes a long way.

     Indeed, even early on, the piece was marginalized by some as kneejerk liberal guilt; and while, ironically, some of the issues it raises have only become more highlighted in the wake of the America/Iraq conflict, it hasn't, as a work of art, become more urgent. Because in the end, one is still left with the question: "Yeah? So, um, what exactly do you want us to do about it?" All right, poor peasants made the coat for slave wages. Do I not buy the coat if I need it? Tell me which coat to buy. And if I buy that coat, am I helping to put the foreign factory out of business and even further hurting the poor peasants? It is of course a massively complex issue, every "absolute" argument is facile, and while Mr. Shawn tries to explore it from all angles, he does so as if trying to inspect every aspect of a random prism by crawling along each reflective surface in search of an ultimate truth.

     Now of course, Mr. Shawn is nobody's dummy. He knows there's no ultimate truth. He's as aware as anyone that all trains of logic in this thing eventually turn back up on themselves and eat their own tails, like the Worm of Ouroborus. And that is, of course, the ultimate truth he (or his unnamed character) literally can't stomach, not knowing what to do about it, save to be overwhelmed to the point of illness. And I think in the end, such nihilism also makes the play less profound than it means to be. It's one thing to get your audience inflamed about a cause to inspire some kind of action within their ability, i.e. this must no longer continue, so that must happen; it's quite another to try to get them inflamed—or for that matter even brooding—about their own impotence.

     But then, such dark views are a specialty of director Scott Elliott's New Group—oh, didn't I mention this productions was theirs?—and only the newbie walks into the den (which is to say the Kirk Theatre in 42nd Street’s Theatre Row Complex) without warning...

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