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Fran's Bed: A Bit Too Soft

Fran's Bed, written and directed by James Lapine, may very well be the least controversial play ever written about whether or not to cut off a hospital patient's life support. There's certainly much to enjoy about the production, if "enjoy" can be considered an appropriate word to use in this case, but despite some playful theatricality, some very funny dialogue, one gleefully inventive moment and the glimmering presence of Mia Farrow, the play never says much of anything and is curiously unemotional.

In the opening scene we meet Fran Dubin (Mia Farrow) dressed angelically in white with a halo of golden hair and a wispy, woman/child aura reminiscent of... well, Mia Farrow. She's telling her therapist (Jonathan Walker) about a sex dream she's been having involving the Secretary of Homeland Security. Coming from the soft, innocently thoughtful voice of Ms. Farrow, it's very funny stuff. Later on she tells another therapist of a similar dream with another government official. More funny stuff. The play isn't lacking for funny stuff. It's the central drama that's lacking.

You see, Fran is actually in a coma. The reason is never spelled out for us, but her situation stems from an old tennis injury that eventually leads to an overdose of pain killers. A mannequin resembling Farrow lies in an Arizona hospital bed while the actress observes those around her. She's in the continual care of hired aide, Dolly (a sweet, earthy Brenda Pressley), who usually has the TV turned on to soap operas and has one-sided conversations with her patient about the melodramatic stories. Her husband, Hank (an underplaying Harris Yulan), while still trying to be a responsible spouse and father, has taken up with another woman. Daughter Birdie (Julia Stiles) is a successful businesswoman in California, having founded, and her sister Vicky (Heather Burns) is a divorced mom in Michigan. Although both are faced with the serious issue of setting the lives they've created for themselves aside to be near a mother who may or may not be aware of their presence and who will most likely never regain consciousness, the author gives the actresses little to work with aside from some funny lines.

The play skips from hospital scenes to glimpses of the past: Hank meeting Fran ("A shiksa princess in a sea of Jews") at a wedding, a family dinner when it's discover that Birdie has a date with a boy Vicky likes, Fran having an extra-material affair, and of course, the therapy sessions. But it's never made clear if these are memories going through Fran's mind or merely flashbacks. A major weakness of the play is that we never really connect with what Fran is experiencing while not being able to communicate.

Marcia DeBonis plays a hospice saleswoman whose inexperience at the job is awkwardly mined for humor by Lapine. There are the expected debates about whether or not to disconnect life-support, some bureaucratic wrenches thrown in and a bit more controversy at the end, but it's all rather lightly handled with no special insights offered.

Toward the end, however, Lapine treats us to a neat little effect. I won't ruin the surprise, but let's just say it suggests why so many elements of the production may remind you of TV soap operas at their most stereotypically cliched. David Lander's lights and Fitz Patton's sound design both have their over-dramatic moments (you would think the family lived in a medieval dungeon from the sound of the door slams) and Susan Hilferty's costumes come in broad character-defining strokes. Scenes take place in hospital rooms, bedrooms, therapists' offices, at a wedding and at a family meal; typical settings for daytime drama. And the hospital set (scenic design by Derek McLane based on Douglas Stein's original designs) is situated in a way where you can easily imagine cameras and a TV crew surrounding the main playing area.

James Lapine is best known as the book writer and director of such successful musicals as Sunday in the Park With George and Into The Woods. In musical theatre, of course, the emotional highs and lows are expressed through song. Lapine the director has given Fran's Bed plenty to sing about, but Lapine the playwright still hasn't composed the tune.


Photos by Joan Marcus: Top: Julia Stiles
Center: Mia Farrow
Bottom: Mia Farrow and Harris Yulan

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From This Author Michael Dale