Review by Kathleen Campion
The Father; Photo by Joan Marcus
I cannot suggest you will enjoy The Father, now playing at the Manhattan Theatre Club. But I promise you, you will be moved—perhaps wounded.
When we meet André (Frank Langella), he is scrappy, if wary. He is a relatively fit 70-something, sitting in his stylish easy chair in his well-appointed Paris apartment, while his daughter, Anne (Kathryn Erbe), scolds him. He has threatened the woman she’s hired to help him—to take care of him—with a curtain rod. He bristles at the accusation— “Anne, really? A curtain rod?” —and denies it is possible. Ultimately he lies about the encounter and calls the woman a thief. He insists it is of no consequence, because he needs no helper, no help.
Watching a powerful patriarch brought low is a familiar piece of theater (you remember Willie Loman), but when Frank Langella takes the stage, we are in another dimension. André is arch to begin; ninety minutes later, he’s dwindled to a broken soul and the audience is on shaky ground as well.
It is not a comfortable journey, since it plays on our most profound fears. As dementia ravages André, the audience has more than a ringside seat. We are not watching reason shatter; we are thrust into the chaos with him. Florian Zeller’s script and Doug Hughes’s direction put us inside André’s brain; we see the world as he does. Scenes stop and start again. Conversations we have heard with him are denied. Time speeds up, even reverses. When Pierre (Brian Avers) leaves the room to heat up the chicken, we are stunned to discover he was never there!
The set is André’s Paris apartment, but suddenly his daughter and son-in-law call it their home in which he has a room. Later, it is the nursing home. Neither he nor we like the odd six-foot plant that appears and disappears unceremoniously. We all liked the comfortable furniture; where did it go? André has flashes of inexplicable churlishness that underscore his panic and give him, and us, a breather. When a young man threatens André, then strikes him, our cheek stings. Ultimately, we are both embarrassed for him and humiliated with him.
Because we see the progress of events from André’s perspective, and because André is Frank Langella at the top of his game, other fine performances are inevitably overshadowed. Kathryn Erbe’s Anne, the virtuous daughter, is an intense and urgent “Cordelia.” She acts and reacts and is relentless in her coping and caring. And, she is touching, as the obvious solution looms large.
Of the other four characters who come and go, only two have names, again underscoring André’s—and our—confusion. When we expect Laura, an engaging Hannah Cabell, to arrive, we are “on our-back-foot” to see another woman in her stead: Kathleen McNenny, “Woman” in the program. She and Charles Borland (“Man”) are steady in their characters but not given much to do.
Much art and science is pressed into service to put us in a mind of diminishing capacity. One effect needs rethinking. Scene changes are fiercely disorienting—and yes, we get it—but it’s too much. As scenes end the stage dips to black, and a powerful white light hits the audience. Just as our constricted pupils try to recover, the black stage is rimmed with pulsating lights of varying lumens. Good gimmick to begin—we are in the neural network. It gave my neural network a headache, but something short of stroke. Not all dramatic ideas are good ideas.
It has long been fashionable to say that Shakespeare wrote all we need to know about dementia in King Lear. Until now.
The Father – By Florian Zeller; translated by Christopher Hampton; directed by Doug Hughes
WITH: Frank Langella (André), Kathryn Erbe (Anne), Brian Avers (Pierre), Charles Borland (Man), Hannah Cabell (Laura) and Kathleen McNenny (Woman).
Sets by Scott Pask; costumes by Catherine Zuber; lighting by Donald Holder; music and sound by Fitz Patton; illusion consultant, Jim Steinmeyer; production stage manager, James FitzSimmons; general manager, Florie Seery; production, Joshua Helman; associate artistic producer, Stephen M. Kaus; line producer, Nicki Hunter.
Presented by Manhattan Theater Club, Lynne Meadow, artistic director; Barry Grove, executive producer. Through June 12 at the Samuel J. Friedman Theater, 261 West 47th Street; 212-399-3050, manhattantheatreclub.com. Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes, no intermission.