Already broadly celebrated in Paris and London, Florian Zeller’s 2012 “tragic Farce” (the playwright’s term) places us squarely in a mind suffering from advanced dementia. That’s an oxymoron. One cannot be squarely inside anything whose parameters are frighteningly mercurial. Intimates are unfamiliar, geography morphs beneath one’s feet, time shifts back and forth, oblivious and cruel. Yet we are there, wherever there is, almost as surely as Zeller’s protagonist, André, The Father (Frank Langella).
An elegant, upper middle class Frenchman who was probably never likeable, André fights the onset of this disease with a long unassailable ego and every ounce of his considerable strength and intelligence. It’s as if Prospero (The Tempest) took on the typhoon called forth by his errant brain. We watch as self-sacrificing daughter, Anne (Kathryn Erbe) futilely tries to get him at-home help who can withstand his anger, confusion, and indignant denial.
The play is a succession of scenes divided by blackouts with painful, flashing, proscenium lights – brain synapses? At first, we’re in André’s tasteful, bourgeois apartment shortly after his latest caregiver has fled in tears. He tells Anne that, among other failings, the woman stole his watch – André’s compass and an ongoing concern throughout. When it’s found in a cupboard behind the microwave where he stashes valuables, her obstinate father declares the only reason it wasn’t purloined is that he hid it. Why is Anne so unsympathetic, he demands, why is she not like the younger daughter he prefers?!
Brian Avers, Frank Langella
Every time the lights go off and on, time and place alter unsequentially. In the first vignette, Anne, who is divorced from Antoine (Charles Borland), says she’s moving to London to be with her lover, Pierre (Brian Avers) and must find a solution to her father’s inability to care for himself. In the next, André is living with Anne and a resentful Pierre to whom she seems to be married; then Antoine appears as her spouse. Both men seem to be current, both are not at first recognized. One of them repeatedly slaps the 80 year-old which is viscerally shocking. André regresses to a whimpering child.
One moment Anne appears to be a completely different woman, a blonde (Kathleen McNenny). In the next, she is ‘herself.’ A newly hired aide, Laura (Hannah Cabell), looks just like André’s absent daughter, who, spoiler alert, turns out to be long dead. The actor who plays Antoine shows up as a doctor; the blonde as his nurse.
Kathryn Erbe, Frank Langella
André is convinced Anne wants his apartment and will put him in a home. In his shaken mind, faces become interchangeable. Unmoored, he remembers only the last scene from which he tries to regain his bearings. We ricochet in time like a character out of a Kurt Vonnegut novel. The only consecutive aspect of the piece is increased incapacity, every incremental change palpably experienced. Charm turns to cruelty, paranoia, panic.
Frank Langella, Hannah Cabell
Keep your eyes on Scott Pask’s excellent Set. Each time the lights come up, things have changed. Artwork, photographs, books, and furniture disappear and return. To say this compounds the disorienting narrative is to minimize its effect. Between Mr. Langella’s inhabitation of this larger than life personality, Donald Holder’s disturbing Lighting Design, Fitz Patton’s evocative Music and Sound, and the map-less script, you may want to pack Dramamine.
Florian Zeller and translator Christopher Hampton have crafted an immensely affecting, immersive play in which we find ourselves sharing, rather than observing the protagonist’s experience.
Frank Langella is simply brilliant. Whatever affectation you may have attributed to the actor during the mid portion of his long career, has, these last years, been jettisoned for newfound authenticity. The portrayal is wrenching; mercurial adjustments in an effort to appear more grounded completely credible. Rather than indulging in an appeal for sympathy, Langella plays André with callous rancor, a man whose formidable pride and then actual self is violently stripped away by an unseen hand.
As Anne, Kathryn Erbe is believably strong, exhausted, frustrated and devoted.
Director Doug Hughes has done a masterful job. The result- powerful, nuanced, clarity of acting in an environment of utter obscurity.
Photos by Joan Marcus
Opening: Frank Langella, Kathryn Erbe
Manhattan Theatre Club presents
The Father by Florian Zeller
Translated by Christopher Hampton
Directed by Doug Hughes
Samuel J. Friedman Theater
261 West 47th Street