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Frank Lloyd Wright's Pacific Overture
-by Lynn Becker
"I heard the slow, raspy voice of an old man," Frank Lloyd Wright recalls, in dismay, because it's his voice, the voice of a desperate man stranded in Tokyo, beaten down by the twin ordeals of building the Imperial Hotel and growing old by the second as he faces the ruin of his once illustrious career.
That's the moment Richard Nelson captures in his new play, Frank's Home, in which director Robert Falls, directs a pitch-perfect cast headed by Syracuse University Professor Peter Weller, a long way from Robocop, as Wright, and veteran character actor Harris Yulin as Wright's mentor, architect Louis Sullivan. The production runs at Chicago's Goodman Theatre only through this Saturday, December 23rd, but is also set to transfer to New York's Playwrights Horizons January 13th through the February 18th.
It is 1923, and Wright has been, "pushed to the sea," - on the run from the indifference of Chicago and New York, struggling to "start again" in the fertile crescent of California, where he is reunited with his two estranged children - Catherine (Maggie Siff), whose own daughter is about to begin school in the Wright-designed Hollyhock House, and Lloyd (Jay Whittaker), object of his father's vocal scorn both for his allegedly meager talents as an architect and for selling out architecture to build false-front sets for Hollywood epics
That raspy, old man's voice that so unsettles Wright can be seen as a portent of decline and death, but for us, it's the only Wright voice we know, that low-pitched oracular rumbling of a man in the final, triumphant decades of his long life (he lived into his 90's), entombed in the legend of his own creation, architecture's animatronic Mount Rushmore in cape and porkpie hat.
The great virtue of Frank's Home is its attempt to capture the man inside the icon, even if it means recasting his tale as family melodrama. Start with the children, on constant, emotionally volatile edge between simmering resentment and a unquenchable hunger for their father's love. Throw in Wright's mistress Miriam (Mary Beth Fisher), for whom that mixture has already accelerated a descent into drink and drugs. Add in William (Jeremy Strong), the dedicated, idealistic architect wannabe used largely as a personal servant, and you can be forgiven if you think you've drifted into a California spawn of Long Day's Journey, with a dash of Les Enfants Terrible thrown in for spice.
If that's not enough, there's also the broken figure of Louis Sullivan (Yulin), Wright's mentor, an exhausted, alcoholic has-been, shambling towards his own imminent demise. And stoking it all is a deux ex mechina of a massive Tokyo earthquake, with the fate of Wright's "earthquake-proof" Imperial Hotel still unknown. Nelson puts Wright at the pressure point, with Lloyd's bitter denunciations at news of the hotel's collapse forcing Wright out of his hermetic self-absorbtion.
Most of the reviews of the play have gotten hung up on the discovery that FLW was something of a monster, but that's yesterday's news. What's actually most intriguing about Frank's Home is how the clash of its characters keeps recasting and refining the basic issues: art, morality, love and truth - you know, that whole crowd.
To a practical man like Catherine's husband Kenneth (Chris Henry Coffey), a banker being cajoled by his wife to pitch Wright to his clients, beauty is an add-on. You select bits of ornament, historical brik-a-brak, for your house pretty much like you would buy towels. To Wright, it's not an accessory. It's the main event, a moral imperative. Just as a devout Christian believes life is all about witnessing your commitment to a corrupt and evil world, Wright views the rescuing of beauty from the constant, common ugliness as the reason why we're here. It doesn't matter that the roof leaks, or that it bankrupted everyone involved in it, or that hundreds of people may have been killed in its collapse - the highest value a building can have is to be beautiful.
But what is that beauty? It's called into question by Wright's infatuation with the lithe young schoolteacher Helen (Holley Fain) who's dining with the family at the beginning of the play. Wright flirts with her incessantly, taking delight in making her blush. He may grow distracted the moment as Helen begins to describe to him the new school's curriculum, but he desires her beauty, just he did that of the maids in the Imperial Hotel, for whom he claims to have created high doorknobs just so he could watch their form as they stretch to reach them, just as he admires the lovely feet of Hollyhock House's owner, Alice Millard, whose relationship with the architect is inferred to have gone far beyond business. When does carnal appetite ascend into the spiritual, or are they two sides of the same coin?
Although Frank's Home plays without intermission, it still breaks into two acts. The second is dominated by what is, in essence, a long monologue that's meant to be the play's climax. Peter Weller earns his keep here.
Wright begins by absent-mindedly opening his correspondence - bills, entreaties, sundry threats - as he talks, barely glancing at them as he tosses them onto the ground. He eases into a bravura rant on rise and fall of the La Miniatura, the textured concrete block house he built for Millard, encompassing the decline of American architecture, the care and feeding of clients, and his own genius in perching the house, not on the usual hill, but in the midst of beautiful ravine, with a view of the hill. The tale grows more and more complex. Contractors are hired without Wright's approval. Work fails to progress. Funds disappear. Lawsuits are filed. But, finally, the house is finished, and Millard is overwhelmed by its beauty. And then, at the end, nature answers hubris. A downpour in sunny California brings water cascading down the ravine, storming through the house, leaving Millard with her head down, those beautiful feet caked in mud, her lovely eyes dissolved in tears.
Weller's grab the scene in his teeth and never lets it go. He creates a cadence that exactly Wright, a seductive composite of passion and condescension, in turn unforgivably obtuse and wryly self-aware, recounting a great story in a way that's hugely entertaining even as its paints a richly nuanced and poignant portrait of the teller.
But while, as an architecture buff, I enjoyed each and every detail, for others it may be a bit too much, At both performances I attended, a large portion of the audience that had seemed riveted during the play's first half now grew perceptibly restive. It doesn't help that Sullivan is made to share the stage for the entire scene with little to do, as if he's suddenly been consigned to being the desk clerk to Wright's Hughie. Nelson misses a trick by making Sullivan weak and recessive. Wright himself described him as being more than a little wired, so addicted to caffeine he'd bang on his table at the Cliff Dwellers Club if the coffee wasn't brought fast enough. Yulin gets one splendid moment, a fervent outburst that marries outrage to despair, and he does so much with a mere glance or low, unnerving hum that you can't help but think that Weller's long speech would play stronger if Nelson made Sullivan's role less passive and opaque.
In the end, we get the news that the Imperial Hotel stands (my apologies if a spoiler alert was required). In a flash, Wright goes from goat to genius, much to Lloyd's distress, until a reborn Wright suddenly appears in cockeyed Admiral's hat, strums a ukulele, and begins to sing,
Suddenly Catherine and Lloyd are at his feet, delighted and enraptured, just as when they were children in the playhouse he designed for them in his Oak Park home. The moment ends abruptly; the past cannot be regained, but in that instant you get a sense of how it begins, how in the delight of role playing we begin to define who we are, and how, as much as he might deny it, it helped Wright shape his architecture. He was Japanese. He was Mayan. He was, after all, the World's Greatest Architect. And, as he reminds his son as they both sit sketching, "I don't do people, Lloyd."
© Copyright 2006 images and text Lynn Becker All rights reserved.