nytheatre.com review by Michael Criscuolo
September 24, 2005
James Lapine’s new play, Fran’s Bed, has a lot of things going for it: hot-button subject matter, big name stars, some fine direction, and generally good acting. Why, then, does it feel like Fran’s Bed never adds up to more than the sum of its parts?
The story focuses on Fran, a middle-aged woman trapped in an irreversible coma in an Arizona hospital room. She ruminates on her life while her family—her husband and two daughters—decides whether to let her live or die. As the play unfolds, it’s revealed that things were less than perfect at home. Both spouses, at one point or another, were having extramarital affairs. Fran was addicted to prescription painkillers, and her current state is the result of an overdose that may or may not have been accidental. Her spouse, Hank, has been a genial but distant husband and father, given to small talk but weary to discuss anything more substantial. The favored position that their younger daughter, Birdie, has always held in Fran and Hank’s eyes has taken its toll on their older daughter, Vicky: she has developed a seething inferiority complex and gone on to a life of suburban single-motherhood anonymity, while Birdie has become a wealthy, high-powered New York businesswoman.
Lapine peppers Fran’s Bed with many interesting little tidbits. A dinner table flashback, from Vicky and Birdie’s high school years, illustrates the family’s flawed dynamics poignantly. Another scene, detailing Fran and Hank’s very first meeting, is sweet and charmingly awkward. Fran’s extramarital activities get the cold light of day shed on them as she and her lover reveal the real reasons behind their trysts. And, a very funny coma-induced dream, played out on the television in Fran’s hospital room, puts the family in the middle of a daytime soap opera. (Kudos, also, to Lapine for giving voice to the rarely noticed or talked about sexual desires of senior citizens. Fran and Hank’s respective longings for physical intimacy are a refreshing alternative to today’s youth-driven sexual culture.)
But, Lapine comes up short where it really counts: namely, the point of it all. Why is Lapine telling this story? To tell us that making the decision to either end or continue one’s life is a personal one? It is, indeed—but that’s not exactly news. Lapine, thankfully, stays away from making Fran’s Bed a political play (although, if one were to read it that way, the conclusion might rub the liberal left the wrong way). But, he doesn’t seem to have any opinion on his subject matter, one way or the other, and his reasons for wanting to tell this story are never made clear.
As director, though, Lapine works his usual magic. A mastermind of dressing up underwhelming scripts with stunning visuals (cf., Passion and Golden Child, to name two examples), Lapine does the same here. The physical production—by set designer Derek McLane, costume designer Susan Hilferty, and lighting designer David Lander—is impressive, dominated by Fran’s hospital room and a vast array of moveable curtains that suggest other locations. The soap opera hallucination is particularly inspired: the TV in Fran’s hospital room, which has been hanging innocently from the ceiling the entire show, suddenly turns to face front, revealing Fran and her nurse, Dolly (who is addicted to soaps), in a pre-taped send-up of daytime dramas, featuring the rest of the clan. (This segment also, ingeniously, covers a scene transition—another one of Lapine’s specialties.)
Lapine usually does good work with his actors, as well, and Fran’s Bed, for the most part, is no different. Brenda Pressley shines as Dolly; Harris Yulin performs with ease and authority as Hank; Heather Burns makes Vicky’s discomfort around her family tangible; and Marcia DeBonis and Jonathan Walker provide solid support in a variety of smaller roles.
The weak links in the cast prove to be the two stars. As Birdie, Julia Stiles is game but in over her head. She rushes/forces/ignores her character’s inner transitions, and never seems as comfortable on stage as her fellow castmates. As a result, her performance comes off as stiff and artificial. In the title role, Mia Farrow is a puzzlement. Her Fran is equal parts looniness, immaturity, and fragility—none of which I can discern as being justifiable or not. In Farrow’s defense, I will say that the role is poorly written—there are too many questions left unanswered (is she really suicidal or was the overdose just an accident? is she clinically depressed or just going through a rough patch in her marriage? is she really crazy or are the painkillers just making her so?), so it’s difficult to know who Fran really is. But, Farrow does nothing to help clear things up, relying heavily on a hodgepodge collection of characteristics left over from her Woody Allen film roles. Which isn’t automatically a bad thing, but it doesn’t strike me as particularly original, nor does it necessarily come across as the character Lapine has written.
There is a good play buried somewhere inside the current production of Fran’s Bed, but it needs more focus and specificity from Lapine in order to be uncovered. Until then, it remains floating in a state as nebulous as the coma the title character finds herself in.