Monday, November 29, 2004

Play: Concrete in Compression

Work Song: Three Views of Frank Lloyd Wright by Jeffrey Hatcher and Eric Simonson, Directed by Eric Simonson, City Theatre, Pittsburgh, through December 19th.

True story – I owe my very-comfortable bed to Frank Lloyd Wright. When I first moved to Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, I bought a waterbed from a family that had moved into a house designed by one of Wright’s students. As a result of the Frank Lloyd Wright-style design, there was no place in the house for such a large bed, and no wall space sufficiently uninterrupted for the headboard. That’s sort of the way I have always felt about Wright’s designs – they always required some form of compromise from the user.

Work Song requires compromise as well – it is three different plays with a common group of actors, and like Wright’s work requires some accommodation. Set at different periods of Wright’s life, it feels disjointed, and lacks a common central support to hold it all together.

Act 1 (Form and Function Are One) is pure bio – the rising young lion branching off, designing homes as opposed to skyscrapers, leaving his conventional first wife for his radical, Emerson-quoting second, building Taliesen, and the fire and murders there. It moves with great, Citizen Kane-like leaps, years peeling away as the sets dance across the stage. Sam Tsoutsouvas as Wright stormclouds his way across the stage, irascible, hardly lovable, both cerebral master and slave to his own emotions. A second character, a servant from Barbados, picks up as well, but the two streams do not really combine until the climax of the act.

Act 2 (What a Man Does, That he Has) is smaller in location (the rebuilt Taliesen) and in time (a compressed evening and a day). Now Wright has become old guard, yet to see his phoenix-rebirth with Falling Water, holding court with his third wife and his architectural minions. Though some of the same characters from Act 1 spill over, it has the feeling of a backstage comedy, touching on farce. In particular, Morgan Hallett delivers a comic version of Ayn Rand that reduces her to Nora Desmond-like absurdity. Wright in the play, like in life, feels derailed at this point.

Act 3 (Truth is Life) is even smaller in set, a FLW-designed house occupied by a young couple and smaller in time (a single afternoon). A one-act play in itself, it evokes the ghosts of the previous acts but does not come to resolution. Wright by now is at the end of his life, working on the Guggenhiem, curmudgeonly, elfin, forgiven his ego for his recognized talents and achievement. The great man comes to the common people, insults their furnishings, seeks to recapture a bit of his past, and leaves.

The tripartite and disjointed nature of the play(s) are reinforced by the set design. In act 1, everything is fluid, the sets little more than Wright-designed screens rearranging to form the various scenes. Act 2 the sets move still, but it more pivoting, larger pieces to evoke the Taliesen style. And Act 3 is resplendent in the prairie-style of wood- and brick-work, solid and grounded.

The acting was excellent as well. Tsoutsouvas manages to humanize Wright without sacrificing the architect’s ability, ego, or style. The remaining actors play multiple roles, and pull them off admirably, coining new personalities with the costume and makeup changes. Morgan Hallett as first wife Catherine, Ayn Rand, and then Chicago homemaker Carolyn was excellent, as was Robin Walsh as both second and third wives.

Yet in the end, the play itself seems to lack a central core and theme. The moral seems to be that Wright could make houses but not homes, and that his own demands of accommodation by others was not matched by compromise in himself. Form and function are one, but he never seemed to tweak to the function of his ultimate users, the family that occupies his structures. The play feels overlong and muddy in places, and abounds with loose ends that are abandoned and discarded, much as in life itself. It was well directed and acted, but in the end leaves a enigmatic puzzle about its subject.

More later,