'The Father': Theater Review

The Father Production Still - H 2016
Joan Marcus

The Father Production Still - H 2016

A harrowing performance in an emotional vacuum.

Frank Langella takes a dark journey down the tragic one-way tunnel of dementia in French playwright Florian Zeller's intense drama, adapted in English by Christopher Hampton.

When Frank Langella first appears as Andre, the elderly Parisian in bristling denial of his failing cognitive faculties in The Father, he's ensconced in his elegant apartment, designed in immaculate detail by Scott Pask with a stylish mix of antique and modern. Or is it the home of Andre's daughter, Anne? Over the 90-minute course of this slippery one-act, the furnishings vanish or are rearranged piece by piece with impressive theatrical sleight of hand. The teal walls are bare by the end, with just a hospital bed center stage in an unfamiliar room that has become a cell. Andre is left alone there in a state of terrified disorientation, with only a stranger to provide coolly professional comfort.

As a visual metaphor for the advancing isolation of an unraveling mind surrendering to dementia, the staging is certainly eloquent. It's matched by the powerful work of Langella, conveying the painful freefall from eroding dignity into infantilized helplessness. Kathryn Erbe is equally persuasive as Anne, the daughter who is either skipping off to London to pursue her own happiness or selflessly straining her marriage to care for her ailing parent, depending on which version of Andre's muddled reality you accept.

But French playwright Florian Zeller's drama — adapted in English by Christopher Hampton and premiered to considerable acclaim in London — is a stubbornly unemotional experience, its approach too cerebral and distancing to achieve the shattering impact that the performances demand.

In technical terms, this is an accomplished piece of writing, but there's little heart in it for a play that plumbs such despair, both for the afflicted central character and the family member closest to him. The work will no doubt resonate for audiences with direct experience of a loved one suffering from dementia or Alzheimer's. But a drama that explores such gnawing relatable fears shouldn't have to rely on personal associations for pathos. Zeller's enigmatic construction does skillfully place us inside the woolly head of Andre and make us share in his confusion. But unlike another British import, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, which also gave us direct access to the mindset of a character grappling with perception issues, the stiffness of the writing here leaves relatively little room for empathy.

The play begins with Anne scolding her father for his volatile behavior, which has resulted in his third consecutive nurse quitting the job. He claims innocence, maintaining instead that the employee is a liar who was stealing from him. Projecting a sly air of authority, Langella initially keeps us guessing about the degree to which Andre is plagued by memory loss or simply revising inconvenient episodes. When Anne informs him that she's moving to London with her English boyfriend, Andre masks his dismay by declaring surprise that the divorcee has managed to meet a man. But his time-shuffling befuddlement becomes evident in the scene that follows, in which he fails to recognize a different woman professing to be Anne (Kathleen McNenny) or her husband of 10 years (Charles Borland), taking him for an intruder.

While Andre remains convinced that he's still living in his own flat, the real Anne in fact has moved him into her guestroom, creating friction with her actual husband, Pierre (Brian Avers), who grows increasingly impatient with the old man's lapses. Anne hires a new nurse named Laura (Hannah Cabell) whom her father seems to take to, not least because she reminds him of the absent daughter he clearly favors. But even the infinitely calm Laura has to deal with his abrupt eruptions from ingratiating charm into scornful irascibility when he loses the thread, though Andre's most withering casual cruelty is reserved for Anne.

Langella plays these sudden swings with masterful command and without grandstanding. His imposing height, that sonorous baritone and those large, expressive hands add poignancy to Andre's dwindling coherence and the cagey desperation of his cover-up attempts. His grandiose flourishes, fabricating a glorious past for himself as a dancer, or a globe-hopping life of glamor for his missing daughter, are touching. And the character's final pathetic descent into abject loss, bewilderment and panic is difficult to watch, even if the closing pietà tableau has become something of a theatrical cliché.

But it's the depth of feeling in the performance itself that's moving, more so than the writing, which becomes a repetitious dirge of variations on a scene that outlasts the interest of figuring out its puzzle-like logic. It might have helped make the drama cut deeper, too, had we gotten to know the whole person a little more before experiencing his crumbling mental state, giving us someone to mourn.

Given Hampton's success adapting the work of another French playwright, Yasmina Reza's God of Carnage, into an American version, the decision here to stick with the original setting is perplexing, especially since the play lacks cultural specificity. That means we get unknowable characters with jarringly pronounced names, divorced from any recognizable milieu, leaving us generally as removed from them as poor, broken Andre.

Erbe's Anne, saddened and rapidly losing hope, is no less affecting than Langella. Her admission of feeling "a wave of hatred" for her father — whether it's real, the product of her subconscious or of her father's addled imagination — will strike uncomfortable chords for many. Cabell also makes a strong impression as the nurse determined to meet the challenges of her punishing job. But the cast is uneven. The other two men in the ensemble, quite frankly, are terrible, and while McNenny appears to have been directed to play the eldercare nurse in the concluding scene with the patronizing detachment experienced by Andre, the performance comes across merely as wooden.

Director Doug Hughes too seldom nails the staccato rhythms of broken-sentence conversations, particularly in the opening scenes, in which his actors seem to pause for one another's interruptions. There are awkward directorial touches, too, notably the blinding flashes of light that accompany between-scene blackouts, meant to jolt us into unpredictable reality shifts. These belong to an experimental approach at odds with the overriding conventionality of the staging. Pask's disappearing set design, however, is far more effective than the play itself at conveying a world in which the familiar is in constant retreat.

Venue: Samuel J. Friedman Theater, New York
Cast: Frank Langella, Kathryn Erbe, Brian Avers, Charles Borland, Hannah Cabell, Kathleen McNenny
Director: Doug Hughes
Playwright: Florian Zeller, adapted by Christopher Hampton
Set designer: Scott Pask
Costume designer: Catherine Zuber
Lighting designer: Donald Holder
Music & sound designer: Fitz Patton
Illusion consultant: Jim Steinmeyer
Presented by Manhattan Theatre Club, by special arrangement with Theatre Royal Bath Productions