“Sometimes I think I am America,” Frank Lloyd Wright says, lounging on the beach with his daughter and her friend.
The delivery of this line, which is the opening line of the play, is done in a seemingly casual manner. However, it carries a deliberate weight and sets the tone for the entire performance of Frank’s Home, Richard Nelson’s artfully crafted and exquisitely acted play currently in performances at the Playwright’s Horizons Theatre.
Set in 1923, the play features Frank Lloyd Wright, the famed architect on vacation in California. He has recently returned from Tokyo, where he had spent years working on the Imperial Hotel and is visiting his son and daughter, accompanied by his best friend and mentor Louis and his mistress Miriam, He has returned to reconnect with his family and determine his next line of work.
Frank believes his family is happy to receive him; either that or he does not care if they aren’t. Having reached the peak of his fame, he is now uncertain how to be a living legend and seems content with being an arrogant man instead. He is self-satisfied and supercilious, remarking scornfully on the state of art and architecture in America, while calmly ignoring the resentful remarks of his daughter Catherine and instead basking in the innocent adoration of her friend, Helen, a teacher in the school building that he has designed.
The show spans three days with the family, during which Wright attempts to implement changes in his life, including breaking up with his long-time mistress Miriam, and reconnecting with his children. Neither attempt is an easy one; Miriam is determined to stay with him, and even more determined when she is drinking, and Catherine and Lloyd both resent Wright for his abandoning them when they were young. Lloyd especially holds a grudge; while Catherine still respects her father’s work and admires him professionally, Lloyd does not see greatness in the buildings and questions his father’s moral and ethical values, or lack thereof. When the Tokyo hotel, which Wright had boasted would withstand any earthquake the city faced, is rumored to collapse, father and son face off in a vicious argument in which Wright lectures Lloyd on the value of beauty in the world. It is artist v. artist in that moment, instead of father v. son.
Wright, played by Peter Weller, is the central character of this show, where his family and friends enter and leave the stage, all of their attention devoted to him. The supporting cast executes this beautifully, functioning flawlessly as an ensemble and giving true depth and emotion to the turbulent familial relationships in the script. As Catherine, Maggie Siff is sweetly earnest, and Jay Whittaker gives a depth to Lloyd’s resentment Holley Fain personifies idealism and innocence as Helen, the schoolteacher, one of the women who is able to resist Wright’s advances, and Jeremy Strong is endearing awkward as Wright’s assistant William. As Miriam, Mary Beth Fisher gives a restrained performance where a wild one would have been easy, and her choice is a great one, while Chris Henry Coffey shines in his few scenes as Kenneth, Catherine’s well-meaning husband. Harris Yulin is remarkably understated as Sullivan, quietly delivering many of the show’s punch lines, while pouring from his flask.
As Wright, Weller faces a vast challenge, for the character that has been written is not a simple one. He is a combination of arrogance and insecurity, success and failure, his love for others and his unending love for himself. Weller manages to depict all of these aspects of the man in a truly remarkable performance. He speaks passionately of art and beauty, as well as unapologetically asking, “Why would I do that?” when his daughter suggests that he marry his girlfriend now that his wife has finally divorced him. The contradictions of his character are explored through his conversations with his family and friends, including a lengthy, exhausting monologue in which he describes the idea for, the building of and the eventual destruction of a house for a female client with “lovely” feet. Within minutes he represents the excitement and energy of a new idea as well as the grief that comes with its subsequent failure. With a blanket draped around his shoulders, he quietly states, “I’m broke, Louis,” to his friend and mentor, and for one moment he is stripped of everything.
Various themes are addressed in this drama, including the value of art, the value of beauty, the sacrifice of art for commercial success and the sacrifice of family for work. It is a hefty weight for a cast to carry, but this one bears the burden beautifully.
While the individual performances are noteworthy, it is the overall impression of this cast that truly carries the show. The actors come together seamlessly and the story of this family is engrossing, causing the audience to become deeply involved. It is impossible to not care about these people.
Frank Lloyd Wright may not have been America itself, but Peter Sellers is Frank Lloyd Wright in this play. And that is a true masterpiece.