There’s a sizzling moment of connection toward the end of Richard Nelson’s new play, Franny’s Way, when Frances, a 17-year-old visiting her cousin in New York, enthuses over Franny and Zooey with her cousin’s husband, Phil. The year is 1957 and the young protagonist has taken on the nickname Franny in homage “to the beautiful, frail, lost, fair-skinned, funny, faint-prone heroine of my life and J.D. Salinger’s story,” which had recently been published in The New Yorker. A creepy erotic undercurrent surges through the conversation between Franny and Phil, but it’s the fervid exchange of ideas that provides the fuel.
Otherwise, talk in Phil and wife Sally’s tiny Greenwich Village apartment is so much anxious chatter. Franny has arrived from upstate for the weekend, joined by her 15-year-old sister Dolly and their grandmother. Officially, they have come to offer comfort to Phil and Sally after the recent crib death of their infant. But both girls have set up a surreptitious rendezvous—Franny has planned a tête-à-tête with her boyfriend at NYU, and Dolly has arranged to meet up with their mother, who left their father years before for another man. Meanwhile, traumatized by her daughter’s death, Sally cannot rouse herself to get dressed and leave the apartment, and Phil cannot stand to touch, or even look at, his wife. Little surprise that their conversation tends to be more evasion than genuine exchange.
If Salinger’s Franny famously complains about her family, “We don’t talk. We hold forth. We don’t converse, we expound,” Nelson’s Franny might say, “We don’t talk. We hold back. We don’t converse, we connive.” Indeed, one of the deftest achievements of Nelson’s taut script is his crafting a dialogue of indirection. Hurts and jealousies roil beneath petty arguments over hogging time in the bathroom. Primal longings for affection well up in comments about the steamy jazz wafting in from a club beneath the window.
Still, Franny’s Way is more Glass Menagerie than Glass family. Examining a household in which the lines between childhood and adulthood keep shifting, Nelson is more interested in emotional process than in spiritual crisis. What’s more, Nelson’s work is structured like a Tennessee Williams memory play, narrated by an older Franny reminiscing about her heady youth.
Her monologues frame the drama, older Franny (Kathleen Widdoes) looking back with bemusement at a situation that in its moment looks deeply disturbing: Franny is oozing adolescent sexual energy and riding its current somewhat recklessly; Dolly is trying to heal a wound by keeping it open; Sally, in her retreat, is acting more juvenile than her young cousins; Phil is a selfish mush of confusion posturing as a together adult. As for Grandma (also played by Widdoes), she inhabits her own benign world of tender recollections, yet stays more emotionally available to the people around her than any of them can manage to be for each other. All these characters find their inchoate yearnings for solace and love mixed up somehow with sexual desire, a force that could be more salutary than destructive if only they could get a firm hold of it.
With the help of two strong young actors—Elisabeth Moss as Franny and Domenica Cameron-Scorsese as Dolly—Nelson (who also directs) draws an especially textured portrait of teenage girls on either side of the cusp of their sexual awakening. Moss exudes a perfectly false bravado, flirting with Phil with a studied assurance, while Cameron-Scorsese nearly trembles with both fear and excitement when asking about her older sister’s exploits.
New York City functions as a sixth character, a space of anonymity, permissiveness, and stultifying summer heat; its constant cacophony of traffic, music, and street noise (created by sound designer Scott Lehrer) suggests endless sultry possibilities. Sally talks about being able to see a couple making love in the window across the alley.
In the play’s opening scene, Phil and Sally could be that couple. Franny’s Way begins with their orgasmic moans from offstage. They enter naked in dim light, have a smoke and a beer, and try to catch the breeze from an electric fan. Moments later, they discover that their baby is dead. In that prologue to the main action, erotic mystery turns to a morbidity worthy of Salinger, setting the stage for a conventional family drama gone beguilingly awry.