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A CurtainUp Review
The Mother

There were the children, yes. I took care of them. I certainly took care of the children. Two children, that's quite something. I say two... three, including you. Because I took care of you as well. And then I took care of this house. But now everyone's gone. And here I am on my own. In this big house. In a foreign country. — Mother
The Mother
Isabelle Huppert and Chris Noth (Photo, Aaron A. Foster)
Florian Zeller has written three plays in which a family deals with mental illness, each taking us inside the afflicted title character's mind. No doubt The Son, which was reviewed by our London Critic just last week will eventually find its way to these shores.

Despite the thematic and structural connection, each of these plays stands on its own. Unlike other trilogies, it's unlikely that any producer will want to mount a marathon of this one. Seeing just one of Zeller's delvings into mental health issues is pretty depressing. So seeing all three at once might end up being an assault on the viewer's own equilibrium.

With Frank Langella in the lead, the 2016 production of the middle play in Zeller's trilogy, The Father was mounted in a Broadway theater.

The American production of The Mother, which actually launched the trilogy, also features a lead with star power — the French film actress Isabellr Huppert. While the Atlantic Theater where it just opened is in Chelsea rather than uptown, it's one of New York's most distinguished, high profile Off-Broadway venues. And they've given it a top drawer production, with the busy Trip Cullman at the helm. Besides Huppert to play Anne, the titular mother, we have film and TV veteran Chris Noth to play Peter, her husband.

Though Huppert's accent takes a bit of getting used to, this is a minor problem since she's an amazingly powerful physical actress. There is a problem, however, with the play itself. Though structured the same way as The Father, the result simply doesn't have the same emotional impact or dramatic vigor.

It's not that Zeller hasn't packed the 90 minutes with a lot of details to dramatize Anne's depression about aging (she's almost fifty), a husband she suspects of cheating and empty nest syndrome all of which combine to to have her slip into the territory of dementia.

Zeller's method of having each act feature several slightly altered variations of the same scene, will keep you engaged; though more to figure out which, if any, version of these scenes, is actually true or just a figment of Anne's increasingly fractured psyche. Given that Huppert still strikingly attractive her fear about age is not especially onvincing. What's more, women facing fifty and feeling useless and abandoned once their children have left home seem to belong to a generation before before hers. Ths Anne's plight, unlike Andre's in The Father, is not all that harrowing and involving. Instead, her story is something of a mish-mash that unspools a dysfunctional marriage and an oedipal mother-son relationship.

Zeller does wind the four act play up by having all the scenic detours into Anne's mind explode into a gut -wrenching finale.

The path to that final shift from rage, grief, and desperate oedipal interactions starts out establishing the tension between Anne and Peter (a subtly understated Noth). The opening scene has him coming home from a day at his office, the evening before he's to leave for a 4-day economic seminar. Anne is obviously hostile and suspicious about his work day and the impending trip. From his reaction to her accusations about his relationship with his secretary and her complaints about their children, especially her beloved son Nicolas, are apparently not new.

In a mornng after variation of that scene, Anne announces that Nicolas (an appealing performance by Justice Smith) has arrived during the night, having left his girl friend. This soon has us wondering, if Nicolas really did show up. The possibility that this is a case of wishful thinking is reinforced by what happens in subsequent scenes between her and Nicolas; as well as with his girlfriend Emily (Odessa Young, making the most of her also having to take on yet another open to interpretation persona).

Lucy MacKinnon's projections don't add any colorful images but simply announce what act we're in. Those projected words (in French) are, however, important markers to tell us when the action really moves forward instead of replaying another scene probably strictly inside Anne's head.

Director Cullman smoothly and briskly steers Anne, like Lewis Carroll's Alice, to descend into Zeller's rabbit hole of madness. He also effectively uses the entire theater. He has Chris Noth enter and exit several times from the aisle, and finally moves Noth, Smith and Young just below the stage to clarify their previously played scenes. Fitz Patton's soundscape, Ben Stanton's lighting and Anita Yavich's costumes round out this slick, if depressing entertainment.

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The Mother by Florian Zeller
Translated by Christopher Hampton
Directed by Trip Cullman
Cast: Isabelle Huppert (The Mother-Anne), Chris Noth (The Father-Peter), Justice Smith (The Son-Nicolas), Odessa Young (The Girl-Emily).
Scenic design by Mark Wendland
Costume design by Anita Yavich
Lighting design by Ben Stanton
Sound design and original composition by Fitz Patton
Fight Director: J. David Brimmer
Projections by Lucy MacKinnon
Dialect Coah: Kate Wilson
Stage Manager: Samantha Watson
Running Time: 90 minutes, no intermission
Atlantic's Linda Gross Theater 336 West 20th Street
From 2/20/19; opening 3/11/19; closing 4/13/19
Tuesday at 7:00pm, Wednesday-Saturday at 8:00pm, Saturday and Sunday at 2:00pm, Sunday evening performances at 7:00pm on 2/24, 3/3, 3/10.Wednesday afternoon performances at 2:00pm on 3/20, 3/27, 4/3/
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at 3/09/19 press preview

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