WHEN Through 12/23: Tue-Thu 7:30 PM, Fri 8 PM, Sat 2 and 8 PM, Sun 2 and 7:30 PM

WHERE Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn

PRICE $15-$35

INFO 312-443-3800

“You appear…egotistical, overbearing, arrogant,” a client once wrote to architect Frank Lloyd Wright, and the Goodman Theatre’s new drama Frank’s Home goes to great lengths to prove the point. This world premiere by Chicago-born playwright Richard Nelson portrays Wright as an insensitive, emotionally abusive bully–a man who makes self-aggrandizing pronouncements about beauty and his role in creating it and who treats his family and loved ones with scathing sarcasm or callous neglect.

Nelson is clearly interested in the dichotomy between Wright’s dysfunctional personality and his towering cultural legacy. How could such magnificent achievements as Chicago’s Robie House, Oak Park’s Unity Temple, and New York’s Guggenheim Museum have come from such a bitter, closed mind? Despite Peter Weller’s charismatic lead performance, the answer to Nelson’s question remains elusive in his generic, sometimes contrived “Portrait of the Artist as an Aging SOB.”

Set in California during August and September of 1923, Frank’s Home finds the 56-year-old Wright at a low point professionally and personally. His reputation is in decline, job offers are drying up, and he’s disgusted with reactionary attitudes in his field. “Chicago’s bad, New York’s even worse,” he says in the play. “They build buildings now that were in fashion in Europe 80 years ago–or worse, in vogue in Athens 2,500 years ago.” (Though Nelson doesn’t mention it, one frequent target of Wright’s barbs was the Tribune Tower.) Meanwhile Wright’s relationship with his longtime lover Miriam Noel, a morphine addict, is deteriorating.

Hoping to reconcile with his children–estranged since he abandoned the family in Oak Park years earlier–Wright, the man who embodied midwestern architecture, has gone to the edge of America to make a new beginning. His daughter, Catherine, is married to a banker and has a child. His son, Lloyd, designs movie sets–“building papier-mache cities for the picture shows,” in Wright’s scornful words. They hate their father for his treatment of them and their mother, yet they revere his genius and crave his attention. Despite Lloyd’s seething hostility, he bubbles like a baby when Wright casually compliments his skill as a draftsman. Catherine, beset by something of an Electra complex, encourages her husband to help Wright find new clients. But she openly despises Miriam–and mocks Wright for flirting with a pretty young admirer right under his mistress’s nose. Miriam is beginning to realize that though Wright has finally gotten a divorce, he won’t make good on his promise to marry her.

The only person Wright truly seems to care about is his mentor and friend, Louis Sullivan, who’s come to LA in hopes of finding work with Wright. The great architect is now a decrepit drunk, though he boasts, “My hands don’t shake when I draw.”

Having brought together this group of family and friends, Nelson concocts a series of confrontations, illustrating but not really developing the complex conflicts within Wright’s circle. The dialogue is lean and literate, but too often the scenes deteriorate into diatribes as the characters empty their emotional baggage. The only dramatic action involves one of Wright’s most ballyhooed accomplishments: Tokyo’s Imperial Hotel, built about a decade earlier. Wright claimed that the structure was indestructible–but early reports of a devastating earthquake suggest that it’s collapsed, killing thousands. Of course this would completely ruin Wright’s reputation. The apparent disaster spurs a ferocious argument between the architect and his son about Wright’s apparent indifference to the human cost of the quake. “The hotel was beautiful,” Wright declares. “That is enough.”

It’s well-known that the Imperial in fact survived the 1923 Tokyo quake, as the play acknowledges. More important, it remained standing because of Wright’s engineering innovations–barely alluded to in the script’s onslaught of verbiage about the perception of beauty being a moral imperative, to paraphrase Thoreau. Though the play suggests Wright elevated aesthetics over practicality, he was keenly aware of pragmatic as well as artistic concerns. Yet the only design elements discussed in any detail are the Imperial’s doorknobs, which Wright claims to have placed very high because he enjoyed the idea of watching diminutive maids stand on tiptoe to reach them.

The Goodman production–directed by Robert Falls and set to move next month to New York’s eminent Playwrights Horizons–succeeds on the strength of its fine performances. With his craggy face and deep-set eyes, Weller is every inch the American icon with feet of clay, conveying Wright’s power and pain. The actors skillfully negotiate the script’s abrupt, occasionally arbitrary shifts in mood: Harris Yulin as shambling Sullivan, Mary Beth Fisher as unstable Miriam, Maggie Siff as Catherine, Jeremy Strong as Wright’s devoted assistant, and in particular the excellent Jay Whittaker as Lloyd. But the play is built on shaky dramatic ground: Nelson compresses a rich, turbulent life into a flat observation that great men can also be bastards. Duh.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael Brosilow.