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A CurtainUp Review
Fran's Bed
What's your attraction to soap operas, Fran?--- Psychiatrist #1

I like to study the actors. It's interesting how some don't know their lines and others have learned their lines so well. ---Fran

Do you know your lines? -- Psychiatrist #1

I think I used to know my lines exactly. I played my part to perfection-- but right now I don't know whose story I'm in. ---Fran

Mia Farrow in Fran's Bed
Mia Farrow
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
This is the second play I've seen in less than a fortnight in which the author attempts to blend surreal comedy with a cornucopia of social and political issues. Both Eduardo Machado's Kissing Fidel (review) and James Lapine's Fran's Bed are about dysfunctional families. Both start off promising much but end up leaving you feeling shortchanged.

To begin with the promises fulfilled. . . 

Fran (Mia Farrow), Lapine's middle-aged title character, has an unsettling and omniscient dream life (shades of his 1981 Twelve Dreams, in which a little girl gives her psychiatrist father a book describing twelve troubling dreams she's had). One of Fran's dreams gets things off to an amusing start and establishes her quirks and pixyish charm, as well as the more serious problem (addiction to pain killers). This opening dream sequence is one of several scenes in which a psychiatrist (Jonathan Walker, psychiatrist 1 of 2) sits at the side of the stage while Fran, clad in the white gown she wears throughout the 95 intermissionless minutes, sits at the opposite side. The dream she recalls has her stranded on a desert island having intercourse with the Secretary of Homeland Security. Though she explains her discomfort about using sexually explicit language, she allows the Doctor to nudge her into describing how she squeezed his "private parts" and answered his pleas for her to stop with "Only if YOU stop invading my privacy."

As the Doctor quite correctly interprets Fran's dream fantasy, it left her marooned in a seemingly safe place where she was able to control national events as she is apparently unable to control her need for more and stronger pain pills to deal not only with the after effects of a tennis accident which left her at odds with her conventional upper middle-class life. And as the Doctor makes some of Fran's problems transparent, so the curtain between him and Fran also becomes transparent and reveals a look-alike mannequin of Fran in a hospital bed. This dreamlike, surreal structure enables Fran to look at herself and ponder, as do her husband Hank (Harris Yulin) and daughters Vicky (Heather Burns) and Birdie (Julia Stiles), how she went from being a bright-eyed college girl, a.k.a. the "shiksa goddess" of her Jewish sorrority, to this comatose, near-death state. The surrealism also serves as an open sesame for the playwright to use this desperate housewife's other addiction, the soap opera, as a raffish metaphor for contemporary life's low and high dramas.

Thanks to Mia Farrow's luminous performance we do care enough about Fran and are sufficiently entertained by the way the trajectory from youthful enthusiasm to mid-life trauma unfolds so that the better part of the play to abandon all hope that the soap opera conceit can work. Good as Farrow is in creating this portrait of an at once conventional and unconventional woman, her Fran is more elfish sprite than a flesh and blood woman. Add to this that the subsidiary characters, notably Fran's husband Hank, are underdeveloped -- as are the various societal issues the playwright has tossed into his script. This leaves Yulin. struggling to find some meat on a thin part and saddles Brenda Pressley, a fine actress, with the thankless task of making Dolly, the loyal caretaker, the spear carrier for the right to life issue that will make that mannequin on stage resemble Terri Schiavo as much as Mia Farrow.

Heather Burns and Julia Stiles don't fare much better. While it's not hard to see the correlation between Vicky's non-life as a mousy single mom and that of the more worldly but equally lonely workaholic Birdie, the sisters' real feelings about their mother's impending death is more opaque. Thus the two peripheral characters, the insurance man and a Hospice administrator (Jonathan Walker and Marcia De Bonis, both of whom double as the Psychiatrists), are the most interesting and entertaining characters besides Farrow.

To add to the promise fulfilled side of the ledger, nothing has been spared to make this production look good. Lapine skirts his play's weaknesses with expert directing, aided by a topnotch design team. Derek McLane has created a versatile, effective set, compellingly lit by David Landers. The scene to scene shifts are well served by Fitz Patton's music. When the hospital room's always turned on TV set finally swings screen forward for Lapine's big soap opera riff, it's given a sturdy helping hand from projectionist Elaine J. McCarthy.

The trouble with Fran's Bed is that it isn't terrible or boring. It simply isn't as gripping and emotionally satisfying.

Playwright and Director: James Lapine
Cast: Mia Farrow(Fran), Harris Yulin (Hank), Heather Burns (Vicky), Julia Stiles (Birdie), Brenda Pressley,(Dolly), Jonathan Walker (Eddie/Doctor), Marcia DeBonis (Lynne, Doctor)
Editor's Note: Farrow Yulin, Burns, Pressley and DeBonis all appeared in The Long Wharf Theatre production of this play in 2003.
Set Design: Derek McLane
Costume Design: Susan Hilferty
Lighting Design: David Lander
Sound Design: Fitz Patton
Projections: Elaine J. McCarthy
Running time: 95 minutes without intermission.
Playwrights Horizon Main Stage, 416 West 42nd Street, 212/279-4200,
From 8/30/05 to 10/09/05; opening 9/25/05.
Tue - Sat at 8pm; Sat & Sun at 2:30pm; Sun at 7:30pm
Tickets: -- $60; $15 student rush.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on 9/24 matinee press performance
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