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Fran's Bed

Presented by and at Playwrights Horizons, 416 W. 42nd St., NYC, Sept. 25–Oct. 9. Casting by Alaine Alldaffer, CSA, James Calleri, CSA, Cindy Tolan, CSA.

Since it begins with a very funny dream about the Secretary of Homeland Security related by a charming and pert Mia Farrow, you would think James Lapine's "Fran's Bed" is going to be a topical satire. But expectations swiftly alter when Derek McLane's set shifts from a neutral therapist's office to a sterile hospital room and the formerly lively Farrow is observing herself (replicated by a dummy) in a comatose state, surrounded by grieving family members.

Lapine, who also smoothly directs this free-flowing, multilayered work, seeks to demonstrate the overlap of comedy and tragedy in ordinary lives through Fran's story. A loving woman with a husband and two daughters, Fran's health gradually deteriorates following a fall during a tennis game. She eventually lapses into a coma after an overdose of painkillers and her family must decide if she should be kept on a feeding tube or allowed to die.

This may sound like a docudrama based on recent events, but the play had a production at the Long Wharf Theatre two years before the Terry Schiavo case erupted. Lapine adds elements of parody, such as a soap opera takeoff and a touchingly hilarious flashback dinner scene that evokes teen anxiety and parental obliviousness.

Despite Lapine's numerous humanizing touches and Farrow's luminous movie-star glow, Fran still comes across as a symbol rather than a flesh-and-blood woman. The most real character is a minor one, Lynne, a neophyte hospice counselor. She spouts memorized expressions of sympathy and processes paperwork while rushing to pick her son up after school. Played with a desperate edge to please by Marcia DeBonis, Lynne captures the pain and joy of everyday life mixed with personal tragedy.

Harris Yulin, Heather Burns, and Julia Stiles give full vent to the conflicting emotions of Fran's husband and daughters. Brenda Pressley is impassioned as Fran's religious caregiver and Jonathan Walker has moments to shine as her sometime lover.

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