By Florian Zeller, and Translated by Christopher Hampton
Directed by Doug Hughes
Reviewed by David Roberts
Theatre Reviews Limited
“With Blue – uncertain stumbling Buzz – Between the light – and me – And then the Windows failed – and then I could not see to see.” (Emily Dickenson, “I heard a Fly buzz” – No. 465)
Anne (Kathryn Erbe) was “scared of [her father André] when [she] was little.” In the present – as he battles his advanced Alzheimer’s – André is more childlike, requesting Anne sing him to sleep with a lullaby. “The Father,” currently running at Manhattan Theatre Club’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, is playwright Florian Zeller’s seductive chronicle of the decline of a father deteriorating from Alzheimer’s and his daughter’s attempts to cope with his decline and with her overwhelming sense of loss and despair.
Unable to care for himself, and having threatened his caregiver Isabelle with a curtain rod, André (Frank Langella) moves into Anne’s flat with her husband Pierre (Brian Avers). In a series of sharply focused scenes, the seriousness of André’s condition becomes clear. He is not only forgetful, he is delusional, he experiences hallucinations, and he is beset with paranoia. Although he is able to be “charming” when he meets his new caregiver Laura (Hannah Cabell), his debilitating condition – which he denies – continues to weaken him and render him even more helpless. He confuses past and present, confuses the identity of the people around him, and withdraws further into an abyss of melancholy and loneliness. The scenes are separated by total blackouts and bright flashing lights surrounding the proscenium. This lighting design by Donald Holder mimics the brain’s electrical impulses firing and misfiring, seeking patterns of normalcy and healing and surcease from suffering – neurotransmitters that fail to fully cooperate or simply fail altogether.
Under Doug Hughes’ exacting and brilliant direction, the ensemble cast successfully creates a pantheon of characters that, depending on one’s point of view, are real or unreal. Their interaction with André is often disturbing and one wonders for instance whether the disturbing scene with the Man (Charles Borland) abusing André is purely delusional or whether it is reminiscent of some actual elder abuse by a caregiver or even by Anne or Pierre. Mr. Borland and Kathleen McNenny (the Woman) appear in scenes as – in André’s mind –Pierre and Anne. Kathryn Erbe captivates the audience in her performance as Anne, flawlessly transmuting the love of a daughter to and from the despair and anger of a frustrated primary giver of care. And Brian Avers balances his character Pierre’s respect for André with his impatience at his longevity and languorous presence.
Frank Langella’s performance as André is mesmerizing. He slowly peels away the layers of an insidious disease with a remarkable tenderness and vulnerability. He is the perfect choice for this role and one wonders if anyone could portray André with the same authenticity and believability. He balances humor with pathos in uncanny ways that challenge the audience to wonder whether their laughter is appropriate or unsuitable. Is it really funny, for example, that a distinguished older man who has always lived with dignity, forgets he was an engineer and convinces his new caregiver he was a tap dancer?
André’s missing watch is the perfect metaphor for the delusional behavior and the paranoia present in individuals with Alzheimer’s. Playwright Florian Zeller focuses the symptomology of André’s advanced dementia on his watch. When he cannot find it, André admonishes Anne’s disbelief with, “What do you mean, “no, it hasn’t”? The watch must be somewhere! It can’t have flown away! So why do you say “no, it hasn’t”? Why do you say that, when it very well might have been stolen? My watch.”
Scott Pask’s stunning Parisian flat set doubles as an equally stunning trope for the disintegration of André’s memory and mind. Aided by illusion consultant Jim Steinmeyer, Mr. Pask creates a striking set which slowly morphs from a beautifully decorated flat with a high end kitchen and tasteful furnishings into a bare hospital room with only a bed. Catherine Zuber’s costumes and Fitz Patton’s original music and sound complement the set design with tasteful perfection.
One should not ignore Florian Zeller’s subtitle for “The Father.” The playwright identifies it as a tragic farce, a theatrical genre somewhat specific to a “new generation” of French playwrights akin to Beckett and Ianesco but who move beyond the confines of Absurdism and Existentialism to an “age of interpellation” that “reflects a larger trend in French literature in general, known as auto-fiction – a fiction whose creation is based on ‘facts’ and that serves as a conduit into the subconscious.” (Scott D. Taylor, “French Tragic Farce in an Age of Interpellation,” from “Modern Drama, Volume 51, Number 2, Summer 2008). Christopher Hampton’s translation of Mr. Zeller’s script handily plunges into the subconscious.
In “The Father” – as in the play’s pairing “The Mother” – Mr. Zeller constructs a fascinating puzzle for the audience to decipher. Solving the puzzle requires the audience to understand “The Father” is a point-of-view play. Mr. Zeller successfully provides the audience with a variety of points-of-view: André’s, his daughter Anne’s, and her husband Pierre’s (“or something along that line” as André describes Pierre). The audience leaves the theatre wondering which point of view might have been most accurate. The audience also exits the theatre with a new understanding of a disease where the familiar becomes unfamiliar, friends become enemies, and the worst nightmare possible becomes reality.