Theater archives

Architects of Self-Delusion


At Frank Lloyd Wright’s funeral in 1959, the presiding reverend delivered a eulogy employing the Psalms, the Book of Job, and Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay “Self-Reliance,” particularly the passage, “Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist . . . . Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind.” Richard Nelson takes Wright’s mind—and devastating belief in its sacred integrity—as the subject of his workmanlike drama, Frank’s Home.

In 1923, suffering financial difficulty and artistic aridity, Wright decamps to California in the hopes of drumming up some commissions and reconnecting with his eldest children, Lloyd and Catherine. Along for the trip are his mistress Miriam Noel and his mentor Louis Sullivan. An articulate tyrant in a summer-weight suit, Wright passes the three days over which the play unfolds shifting from self-pity to self-aggrandizement, graceful rage to clumsy seduction. On Thomas Lynch’s scrub-brush set, well lit by Michael Philippi, Wright elegantly terrorizes anyone fool enough to trust him.

Nelson has spent as much of his career adapting plays as he has writing his own, including several by Anton Chekhov. Chekhovian melancholy may well be the intended tone here, but it’s a mood Nelson can’t individuate or sustain. Though hailed as an original thinker, an American genius, Wright was frequently accused of appropriating the ideas of others. Yet he could somehow always render them his own—unlike Nelson. Too much of Frank’s Home feels merely formulaic—a pleasant enough design, but ultimately undistinguished. The exception: a wonderfully meditative nighttime scene between Wright and Sullivan. While Peter Weller’s Wright delivers a wonderful monologue about the injustices he suffered while building the Millard House in Pasadena, Sullivan (played with a tender bearishness by Harris Yulin) offers muted sympathy.

That’s the rare scene in which Nelson and director Robert Falls allow the unseen and unspoken to predominate. Too often, they prefer to telegraph themes and emotions, underestimating their audience. Most historical fictions contain within them commentaries on their time and place that resonate with the present day, but few need begin with Wright’s declamation, “Sometimes I think I am America. Or what’s left of it . . . . [They’ve] forgotten who they were, who we are. What America was supposed to be.” The text doesn’t trade in subtleties and, Yulin excepted, neither does the cast, creamily costumed by Susan Hilferty. Weller’s Wright, and his friends and relations, push all of their conflicts and dissatisfactions to the fore, leaving little for the audience to discover. What ought to feel airy emerges as ponderous, the seams and joins of its construction ever too apparent.

One of Wright’s biographers called |him a man who “knew little about his own inner life and misinterpreted the little he did know.” The same description could be applied to the nameless speaker of The Fever, a monologue written and performed by Wallace Shawn. Seated in a blandly tasteful New York apartment, the stage lights forming a nimbus around him, the man recounts a trip he took to Latin America and the moral and physical illness he suffered there.

The script itself opens with the lines, “I’m traveling—and I wake up suddenly in the silence before dawn in a strange hotel room in a poor country where my language isn’t spoken, and I’m shaking and I’m shivering.” But Shawn and director Scott Elliott have chosen a far more salutary way to begin the play. The audience is invited onstage to enjoy a glass of very decent champagne and mingle with one another and Shawn, too. Shawn explained to a few curious playgoers, “It’s a heavy evening, so at least we can begin with. . .” and he gestured to his glass.

It is a heavy evening, but not for the reasons Times critic Frank Rich described when he reviewed the piece in its 1990 debut, charging it “a musty radical-chic stunt destined to be parodied: a brave, sincere, and almost entirely humorless assault on the privileged class by one of its card-carrying members.” (But what did you really think?) Yes, Shawn’s character does engage in some measure of liberal self-flagellation. He suffers an unsophisticated awakening while on vacation and wonders why he has so much when others have so little. He even briefly considers giving his modest fortune away. But the play doesn’t really concern itself with leftist hand-wringing—or, indeed, its critique. Its subject is how easily each of us, no matter how perceptive or well-intentioned, can fall under the sway of a seductive idea, and how quick we are to use all manner of intellectual self-justification to excuse our belief in it. The Fever doesn’t intend to chide us for attending the theater and drinking champagne while so many others suffer, but to show us how quickly a man can go from enjoying those activities to believing them worthy of censure to concluding, finally, that he does deserve to enjoy these things and the poor who might try to seize power—who might try to wrest his glass from him—should be “taken out and shot.”

Shawn puts his round face and squeaky tones to unexpectedly effective use. Jennifer Tipton’s lighting lends him a shadowy air, and he forces his voice into lower octaves, enticing us to agree with him, to participate willingly in his self-delusion, to accept another drink of champagne.