Written by Florian Zeller
Translated by Christopher Hampton
Whether by design or coincidence, the American debut of Florian Zeller’s Molière Award-winning drama marks the second time this season that Manhattan Theater Club has presented a piece on the topic of aging: specifically, the unreliable memory of an aging parent and the struggles of adult children as they adjust to their unfamiliar new role as caretakers. Stylistically, though, OUR MOTHER’S BRIEF AFFAIR and THE FATHER couldn’t be more divergent. Where Richard Greenberg provides a narrator to guide the audience, Zeller prefers to plunge us headlong into a world in which everything is called into question, even the physical surrounding in which the play takes place. Remarkably, this conceptual approach does not serve to intellectually distance the audience from the action of the play. If anything, it keeps us engaged and enables us to see the world through the protagonist’s disoriented eyes.
Andre (Frank Langella) suffers from dementia. His daughter Anne (Kathryn Erbe) is torn between moving forward with her life and taking responsibility for Andre’s care. The old man doesn’t make it easy. With his cantankerous attitude and tendency to misplace his valuables, Andre develops a penchant for accusing his home health care aides of stealing. Anne goes through a series of attendants, unable to find one who’s willing to stay. She finally hires high-spirited Laura (Hannah Cabell) who seems to have the right combination of stamina and vivacity. But as Andre’s condition worsens, it’s obvious that he Laura’s help is not enough. Anne’s husband, Pierre (Brian Avers) grows increasingly irritated with the situation, and Anne herself can no longer deny the fact that her father needs round-the-clock supervision. The father, frightened and disoriented (“I feel as if I’m losing all of my leaves,” he laments), is inevitably relocated to a home.
This action is framed in a jagged, non-chronological style that infuses the play’s fairly simple storyline with dramatic tension. Characters disappear and reappear played by different actors. Fragments of events repeat themselves, set pieces vanish, and conversations run in circles as no two people seem to have the same information. Sometimes Andre appears to be living in his own flat, and at other times staying with Pierre and Anne— or perhaps with his other daughter Elise (Kathleen McNenny). In one of the more shocking scenes, Pierre, his exasperation at an all-time high, become physically abusive to Andre. Or does he? The same scene is acted out by another man (Charles Borland). Ultimately, Andre dismisses the incident as a bad dream. Some things, it seems, are better not to relive. Andre even forgets the fact that Elise died in an accident some time ago. It is these keen observations of the dualities of dementia – its tendency to alternately protect and disturb the patient’s psyche – that give Zeller’s script its veracity.
Langella, always a commanding presence onstage, here gives one of the most emotionally raw and vulnerable performances of his career. By turns callous, charming, desperate, and controlling, he captures both the elegance and authority of the gentleman Andre once was and the primal helplessness of the second infancy to which he is headed. Aided by Scott Pask’s scenic design and Donald Holder’s lighting, director Doug Hughes creates a dissolving visual landscape that mirrors Andre’s descent into senility. The supporting cast is largely strong, though Erbe, both vocally and emotionally, needs to increase her presence. A more vital Anne, her life force at odds with her daughterly obligation, would have added an extra layer of poignancy.
THE FATHER continues through June 12, 2016 at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre , 261 West 47th Street, Between Broadway and 8th Avenue, New York NY 10036. Tickets: www. telecharge.com /Broadway/The-Father/Overview