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A CurtainUp Review
The Height of the Storm
By Elyse Sommer
Zeller's reputation as France's most exciting playwright has repeatedly attracted star talent—Frank Langella for The Father, Isabelle Huppert for The Mother. Consequently, even theatergoers not keen on entering the twilight zone of The Height of the Storm will nevertheless want to see it if they appreciate top drawer acting. With the focus here not just on André's dementia but his 50-year marriage to Madeleine, audiences get a double dose of star power.
Atkins and Pryce, like Langella, are well past social security eligibility but still have active careers. I last saw t he 85- year-old Atkins animate a Beckett radio play All That Fall and just a year ago watched Pryce do a brilliant star turn in the 2016 Lincoln Center Festival production of The Merchant of Venice. Now they jointly demonstrate that they have no problem remembering the playwright's lines which are once again expertly translated by Christopher Hampton.
Instead of telling his story from inside André's mind as he did in The Father, Mr. Zeller here takes a more conventional outside in approach. This would seem to make The Height of the Storm a realistic drama about the tragic problem facing more and more families, and which has also been explored by other playwrights like Sharr White in The Other Place , and Stephen Karam in The Humans . But don't let this seemingly more realistic structure fool you. Close attention must be paid to sort out just what's happening and to whom. Despite addressing a very real and highly relatable social problem, Zeller has imbued his latest play with the aura of a psychological mystery and filled it with potent pauses, unfinished sentences, and touches of menace often associated with Harold Pinter's plays.
Over the course of four scenes, all staged in André and Madeleine's spacious, book filled country house on the outskirts of Paris (beautifully designed by Anthony Ward and evocatively lit by Hugh Vanstone) , they are visited by Anne (Amanda Drew) and Elise (Lisa O'Hare). It's clear that their father, a distinguished writer, is slipping deeper and deeper into the nether world of dementia.
Anne and Elise are understandably convinced the living arrangement is no longer viable. In typical Zeller fashion the various interactions and conversations become a blur of other issues and revelations; for example, apparently this long and loving marriage did include guilt causing and forgiveness requiring actions. And the arrival of a bouquet of flowers does indicate that the real cause for the sisters to be here is that one of their parents has died. But which one? Everything said and done points to Madeleine. But then, why does she keep showing up? What's more, she isn't nearly as frail and discombobulated as André.
To add to the uncertainty about whether Madeleine is alive or a ghost figure the middle scenes ratchet up our sense of being in a twilight zone. The stormy weather outside is an obvious echo of the emotional storm that rocks the aging André. and Madeleine's peaceful existence. (In case you're wondering about how Zeller came to use that storm for his title, he borrowed it from the French Poet Renè Char and includes a few lines of it in the final scene.)
The mystery escalates with the arrival of two other characters listed only as Man (James Hillier) and Woman (Lucy Cohu). Hilllier's Man remains pretty much in his primary role as Elise's not especially likable lover Paul. Cohu shifts identities several times— one of which casts a shadow on the perfect marriage. Her references to a newspaper story about a couple who committed suicide by means of some sort of mushroom poisoning, and in the same hotel where André. and Madeleine honeymooned.
But despite Jonathsn Kent's assured and unintrusive direction, the solid supporting cast and handsome production values, all these visual and verbal hints fail to support Zeller's attempt to meld a topical family drama with a psychological thriller. Clever as it all is, when it comes down to the not to be missed factor: The play itself, not so much. It's only s Pryce and Atkins you don't want to miss.
Given his character's intense meltdown, Pryce has the showier more actorly role. But as we watch Atkins unfurl the depth beneath Madeleine's cooler, more acerbic persona she's clearly more than his match. Together these actors manage to turn Zeller's overly clever script into a truly unmissable point counterpoint duet.
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The Height of the Storm by Florian Zeller
Translated by Christopher Hampton
Directed by Jonathan Kent
Cast, in order of appearance: Jonathan Pryce (André ), Eileen Atkins (Madeleine), Amanda Drew (Anne), Lisa O'Hare (Elise),Lucy Cohu (The Woman), James Hillier (The Man)
Scenic andDesign: Anthony Ward
Lighting Design: Hugh Vanstone
Sound Design: Paul Groothuis
Original Music: Gary Yershon
Stage Manager: James Fitzsimmons Running time: One Hour 30 minutes without intermission
Manhattan Threatre Club at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre
Opened 9/24/19; closing 11/24/19. Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at 9/25/19 press performance
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