Harris Yulin and Peter Weller in Frank's Home
(© Michael Brosilow)
Harris Yulin and Peter Weller in Frank's Home
(© Michael Brosilow)
"I'm not good with people," the architect Frank Lloyd Wright says early on in Richard Nelson's highly compelling drama Frank's Home. While on its face, the comment applies only to Wright's drawing skills, it rather baldly announces Nelson's thesis. Once again, we're asked to come to terms with a great artist whose genius is in inverse proportion to his relationship skills.

It's a credit to Nelson, the uncompromising Peter Weller -- returning to the New York stage after a prolonged absence to play Wright -- and director Robert Falls that Frank's Home doesn't play as a complete apologia for Wright's callous behavior towards his family, lovers, friends, and clients. Instead, what's delivered is a sensitive portrait of a middle-aged man -- Wright is 56 when the play takes place -- who is not overly likable, desperate to change, and yet not totally able to alter his behavior or free himself of his demons.

Frank's Home has arrived at Playwrights Horizons from a run at Chicago's Goodman Theater with its cast intact, which may account for the dazzling polish of Falls' elegant production. Like most bioplays, Frank's Home is a tantalizing mélange of fact and fiction, and audience members who are particularly well-versed in Wright's life will perhaps be bothered with some of Nelson's liberties. Still, the playwright has centered the piece on and around what actually was one of the most pivotal days of Wright's life, September 1, 1923, when the great Tokyo Earthquake threatened the survival of Wright's most recent and celebrated project, the Imperial Hotel.

In Nelson's telling, Wright is living at that moment in Los Angeles on the site of his current project, a private schoolhouse being constructed for the oil heiress Aline Barnsdall. There, he's surrounded by his grown son Lloyd (Jay Whittaker), a fellow architect with whom he has a complex, often competitive relationship; his long-estranged, now-married daughter Catherine (the superb Maggie Siff); his mentally unstable, drug-and-drink-addicted mistress, Miriam Noel (Mary Beth Fisher, stealing her few scenes with ease); and his former mentor, the great architect Louis Sullivan (Harris Yulin), now a destitute alcoholic who is looking to Wright to be his savior.

Also popping in and out of the action are Catherine's successful if dimwitted banker husband, Kenneth (Chris Henry Coffey), Wright's meek assistant William (Jeremy Strong), and Helen Girvin (Holley Fain), a pretty young schoolteacher who captures Wright's attention. As this oddly thrown-together group gather and ungather on the lawn (sparsely if evocatively rendered by Thomas Lynch), happy memories are unearthed along with sad ones, rivalries re-emerge, scores are settled, and truths are forcibly confronted. If it all sounds a bit like Chekhov's Uncle Vanya, the comparison is likely not coincidental.

Many of Wright's greatest projects -- the Usonian houses, Taliesin West, and Fallingwater -- are still years down the road, but Nelson wisely gives us little foreshadowing of that fact. The many jokes about Wright's penchant for leaky roofs are certainly a reference to Fallingwater, but they're primarily used to underscore Wright's rather maddening philosophy that art and beauty are paramount to the everyday needs of his clients. Indeed, audience members unaware of Wright's legacy may believe they're watching the final chapter in a man's life, not the middle episode of thee miniseries.

Given Falls' reputation as an actor's director, it's not surprising that there's not a weak link in the play's cast. Better still, he's gotten an exemplary performance out of Yulin -- an actor I often find frustrating -- who manages to find the pathos in Sullivan's plight while carefully eschewing the occasional traps of bathos Nelson has laid out.

Most of all, Frank's Home would not be nearly as effective without the exquisitely detailed performance given by Weller, still extraordinarily handsome at 59. The role is an actor's dream, complete with aria-like monologues, quicksilver mood changes, and even a brief musical interlude, but it would be one easy to overplay. Thankfully, Weller's work is beautifully modulated, cresting only when it's required and staying grounded throughout. He's definitely got the Wright stuff.