A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
Though at seventy-eight Frank Langella is well past social security eligibility, he has no problem remembering the lines the French playwright has written for him, and Christopher Hampton has expertly translated. Tall and imposing as ever, Langella hasn't lost a smidgen of the charisma, ear-pleasing line delivery and ability to get inside a character that account for his standing as one of the contemporary theater's most riveting actors.
And so, bottom line for impatient readers: If you appreciate what a masterful actor can do with a difficult part, you won't want to miss The Father because Langella is on stage for most of its 90 minutes. Is Zeller's play as unmissable? Not quite so much.
Writers of film and stage plays have already activated the topicality of dramas about dealing with encroaching dementia in ourselves or a loved one. Hollywood did On Golden Pond in 1981, Iris in 2002 Still Alice and The Notebook in 2014. Broadway and Off-Broadway tackled the subject with a stage adaptation of On Golden Pond, and more recently with The Other Place , Dot and The Humans .
In fairness to Mr. Zeller, he's taken a clever and dramatically potent approach with The Father. Instead of telling his story from the outside in, he has taken us inside André's mind. This makes for a "hold onto your seat belts" descent into the scary inner landscape of a man desperate to hold onto his fading memory. While this is basically about a tragic situation facing more and more people, the playwright has managed to imbue the story with the aura of a psychological thriller that has us as disoriented as André about what's happening and who's who.
As the play opens we see his patient but stressed daughter Anne (Kathryn Erbe) dealing with her father's inability to get along with the caretakers. As taken in from his side of their conversations, the elegant apartment they're in is his. She seems on the brink of leaving him and Paris to live with a man she loves in London. His responding to this with "So you're abandoning me" hints at his reluctant admission that all's not well with him.
Over the course of the play's fifteen intermissionless scenes, the setting remains Scott Pask's apartment but with each scene bringing a subtle change to correlate with what's happening. The characters as seen through the title character's lens too are eerily inconstant. The man in Anne's life turns out to actually be her husband Pierre (Brian Avers). To intensify André's deteriorating memory and ability to recognize people, Anne and Pierre at one point show up in the apartment as different actors (Kathleen McNenny and Charles borland, listed only as Man and Woman). Further confused identities involve the initially fired but unseen caretaker and Laura( Hannah Cabell), a new one who he likes.
Even André's own past is shrouded in confusion. He says he was dancer but according to his daughter he was an engineer and his beloved younger daughter Elise may be dead rather than traveling around the world as a successful artist. Perhaps the subtitle, "a tragic farce," which Zeller added to the title of his script is intended for us to see André's mind as having a jumble of doors in and out of which these chameleon characters pop.
No question that Mr. Zeller's structure is stylish and clever. It allows for a good bit of humor before moving towards its dark conclusion. Best of all it gives Mr. Langella quite a bit of scenery to chew — to be unpleasant, charming, funny and tragic. Being a big man and in fine physical shape, he manages to do all superbly, including a litle show-off tap dance for Laura, the caretaker who brings out his once flirtatious persona.
Doug Hughes directs with his usually steady hand and elicits solid performances from the support cast — especially from Kathryn Erbe probably best known to some viewers as Detective Alexandra Eames on Law & Order: Criminal Intent. Donald Holder's intense flashes of light aptly echo André's failing neural system, but briefly enough not to be overly annoying.
However, though Langella and this production pretty much justify all the hype that has brought The Father from London to Broadway, the twilight zone set-up tends to be be as confusing as it is clever. Consequently, you may, as I did, leave the theater full of admiration for the acting and staging, but without having been really pulled all the way in — not even by that almost biblical image evoked at the end. That said, at age thirty-seven Mr. Zeller is fast becoming one of France's most acclaimed contemporary playwrights. The Father won him his second Moliere Award (France's highest theatrical honor) and has already brought his earlier winner of that award, The Mother, back to the London stage. The subject of that one is depression.