Shades of life, death and everything in between

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Times Staff Writer

The story begins with the sounds of lovemaking -- of life renewing itself -- while death silently pays a visit to an adjacent room.

What follows in the Geffen Playhouse’s West Coast premiere of “Franny’s Way” is a meditation on life’s precariousness. It’s a gentle tale, perhaps too gentle, for it’s easy to reach the end thinking: What was that, and why did I bother to watch it?

Long silences and little gestures are as important to the telling of this story as any of the words set to paper. Directing his own script, Richard Nelson -- best known for “Two Shakespearean Actors” and his Tony-winning book for the musical “James Joyce’s the Dead” -- has worked hard to make everything resonate, so that viewers recognize something of themselves in the events onstage.


The story isn’t really about its title character, and perhaps because of this the pecking order of actors also gets reversed, so that the luminous Susan May Pratt makes a stronger impression in a supporting role than do the two higher-profile actresses -- Penny Fuller and Elisabeth Moss (the president’s daughter on NBC’s “The West Wing”) -- who play older and younger versions of Franny.

The story unfolds in 1957 in a Greenwich Village apartment occupied by young Sally (Pratt) and Phil (Jesse Pennington). Having finished making love, the couple stride into view, still naked, for more kissing and cuddling. Slipping into another room in the modestly furnished unit (design by Thomas Lynch), Sally is yanked out of this idyll by the discovery that their baby has stopped breathing.

From there, “Franny’s Way” becomes a memory play as an older Franny (Fuller) enters to look back at the events that ensue when Sally and Phil receive a visit from Sally’s grandmother (Fuller, as well) and cousins Franny (Moss), 17, and Dolly (Domenica Cameron-Scorsese), 15. The visit is meant to console Sally, but sisters Franny and Dolly are too excited about being in the big city to think much about it. To Franny, who has altered her name to make it match the title character in J.D. Salinger’s “Franny and Zooey,” the visit is a chance to inhabit the complex emotional world of her literary heroine, as well as an opportunity to slip off to see her boyfriend, who’s studying at New York University. Dolly, meanwhile, has been secretly arranging a visit with their mother, who left the family a couple of years earlier.

Performed without intermission, the 95-minute show is essentially a behavior study -- a bit like all those French films in which nothing ever seems to happen. Movement is languid in the August heat, and life is accompanied by a soundtrack: music from a jazz club at night, sirens and street voices in the daytime. Little gestures loom large: the out-of-town girls hanging over the back of a couch to look down at the bustling street below; Sally, silently mourning the loss of her baby girl, running her hand along Dolly’s hair; or Sally, craving Phil’s touch, reaching out to take his hand, only to have him pull away, repulsed. Reed thin and delicately beautiful, Pratt is captivating as Sally. Pain shimmers at the edges of her too-bright smiles, to heartbreaking effect. Pennington too is effective at radiating hurt through his amiable yet brittle exterior.

The other performances don’t register as well, perhaps because Nelson hasn’t given the performers enough to work with.

Moss’ Franny seems like an interloper in her own story. We smile at the sophistication and world-weary cynicism that she tries on for size, even as she squabbles like a child with Cameron-Scorsese (director Martin Scorsese’s daughter). But neither girl proves terribly interesting. As both grandmother and the older Franny, Fuller is a pleasant though similarly unremarkable presence -- a situation compounded by line stumbles during Wednesday’s opening performance.


This is all of a piece, for the show itself fails to make much of an impression. Yes, there are themes: the alliances we establish or try to tear apart; the emotions directed at the wrong people; and, most of all, the pain that goes unseen by those around us and, sometimes, remains unacknowledged even by ourselves.

But all of this is clear long before the older Franny materializes to wrap it up in another of her painfully obvious soliloquies.


‘Franny’s Way’

Where: Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Westwood

When: Tuesdays-Thursdays, 7:30 p.m.; Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 4 and 8:30 p.m.; Sundays, 2 and 7 p.m. Also July 2, 2 p.m. No performance July 4.

Ends: July 20

Price: $30-$46

Contact: (310) 208-5454

Running Time: 1 hour, 35 minutes

Elisabeth Moss...Franny

Penny Fuller...Grandma/ Older Franny

Domenica Cameron-Scorsese...Dolly

Susan May Pratt...Sally

Jesse Pennington...Phil

A Geffen Playhouse presentation. Written and directed by Richard Nelson. Set Thomas Lynch. Costumes Susan Hilferty. Lights David Weiner. Sound/score Scott Lehrer. Production stage manager Elsbeth M. Collins.