Two nights ago, I sat for three plus hours at the marvelous Lehman Brothers Trilogy. Eighty-five minutes with The Mother felt considerably longer. This chaotic, irritating piece, seems, like its heroine, completely without bearings.
Playwright Florian Zeller likes to take us out of our comfort zones to an extent that implies he enjoyed, as a child, ripping the wings off flies. While his last Broadway foray, The Father, immersed the audience in dementia, we understood its context and had signifiers on which to conjecture. André (the father) fought oncoming ambiguity. He engaged us, eliciting sympathy.
This character deep dives into madness trying to staunch the empty-nest-pain of an otherwise coddled housewife who hasn’t any interests. Histrionic reaction to no longer being needed provokes no curative action on her part. Like watching an accident, it’s horrifying and no small credit to Isabelle Huppert’s craft that we don’t look away. But none of us care.
Isabelle Huppert and Chris Noth
The Mother (Isabelle Huppert) sits in upper middle class splendor on an endlessly long white couch signifying distance, a book open, but unread. Her solitary day was interrupted only by the frivolous purchase of a red dress she’s sure her husband won’t like. The Father/David (Chris Noth) is late. When he returns, she’s cold, sarcastic, accusatory, repeating questions about his day again and again sure he has a mistress.
David asks what’s wrong several times but, apparently annoyed rather than genuinely concerned, doesn’t pay much attention beyond furrowing his brow. She tells him he’s a terrible parent. Why doesn’t her son Nicolas call? Why doesn’t he visit? It’s that girl with whom he lives. That…Emily! The boy needs to have his own life, her husband replies. Look! There are dozens of empty pill bottles under the couch. Ah ha. The Father has to leave for a four day seminar in the morning – or is he meeting his “little whore?”
Scenes “Un,” “Deux,”, and “Trois” (projected on the back wall) reoccur like Groundhog Day with different behavior and outcomes – scored by oscillating electronic sounds, lit erratically. It’s the next morning; it’s later in the day. Son Nicolas (Justice Smith) shows up the first night. His mother is all over him like a lover. The boy is completely passive. She wants him back-there, with her. He’s Oedipally confused.
Isabelle Huppert and Odessa Young
Emily (Odessa Young) may visit, she may be cruel or ask for advice, she may be wearing a baby doll dress like the red one The Mother has purchased. David could be running away with Emily, with another woman, or not at all. Nicolas is so besotted with Emily he practically salivates when she appears to take him home. Or not. The Mother may try to commit suicide or over medicate in a cry for attention. Will Nicolas come to see her? Are you exhausted yet?
Both Chris Noth and Justice Smith are cardboard cut-outs with voices. Neither makes much of an impression as a character. Both intermittently go blank for no discernible reason, then recover without acknowledgment. Neither is viably emotional for more than the space of an exclamation. Acting flashes, then disappears. Odessa Young is at least not saddled with this form of abstraction. Her Emily is believable, but a turn as the nurse in six-inch heels is, if blamelessly, empty.
Isabelle Huppert is the only reason to see this play and perhaps not enough. Her mania is naked in its freedom, physicality varied and extreme, temper kinetic, wretchedness visceral.
Though Director Trip Cullman gets his players on and off stage/into the theater with skill and alacrity, decisions he’s made about approach seem suffocated by unsuccessful devices.
Mark Wendland’s expansive, minimal set deftly morphs, serving the disposition of the production. Costumes by Anita Yavich are just right.
Photos by Ahron R. Foster
Opening: Isabelle Huppert and Justice Smith
Atlantic Theater Company presents
The Mother by Florian Zeller
Translated by Christopher Hampton
Directed by Trip Cullman
Linda Gross Theater
336 West 20th Street
Through April 13, 2019