Saturday, May 14, 2016

Broadway’s THE FATHER—beautifully conceived, unnerving drama at its finest

Any of us who work in mental health, or those who live with individuals who suffer from dementia, early on-set or advanced Alzheimer’s, know the horrors of the disease.   Watching someone whose cognition fades in and out, and then is functionally gone, is an emotionally gripping experience. 

No one really knows what it is like to be inside the head of a person who is losing and then has lost cognition.  THE FATHER is an attempt to experience the disease from that perspective!

Florian Zeller has fashioned THE FATHER into a work of art of the highest form.  The Broadway production, with translation by Christopher Hampton from the original French, is the stuff of which great theater is made.  Add the focused direction of Doug Hughes, and the superb acting of Frank Langella, and the result is drama at its finest.

The 37-year old Zeller is a multi-award winning French novelist and playwright.  Among his honors is the receipt of the Moliere for Best Play, considered to be his country’s highest theatrical writing honor.  One of the most exciting new theatre writers of our era, he is a master of writing easily understood language and tends to explore relationships in his literary creations. 

His black comedy, THE FATHER, entices the audience to laugh at that which is terrifyingly sad, the deterioration of a strong willed, brilliant mind.  Yet, in spite of the horror, we are enticed to laugh.  The audience sees what André sees, hears what André hears, and is never quite sure if what we are seeing or hearing is accurate.  There is always the danger that, like André, we will miss something, lose something, be unaware of what is going on.  It’s terrifying.

Wandering around much of the play in pajamas, splitting time between an apartment which may or may not be his, or that of his daughter or his daughter’s lover, and then in a place with only a hospital bed in the void of a room, André plods through life. 

André is sweetly eccentric, also frustrated and violent, confused, unclear about why his youngest daughter, who is his favorite, never comes to visit.  He is offensive to Anne, his care-taker daughter, who may or may not, be putting her life on hold for him.  He verbally and physically attacks caretakers, who quit in frustration and exasperation. 

André tap dances for a potential caretaker who he also flirts with, yet can’t remember who she is the next day when she appears for work.  He hides his watch to protect it from being “stolen,” can’t find it, then accuses people of stealing it.  He contends that everyone is losing their “marbles” except himself.

Frank Langella gives us an André who is absorbing, arresting, and compelling.  He is so much André that there isn’t a hint of acting.  Langella is André, André is Langella, and we are the captives, living in a dark world of the auditorium, who must observe André’s few moments of lucidness and many minutes of confusion and disbelief.

The rest of the cast, Kathryn Erbe as his daughter Anne, Charles Borland (Man), Kathleen McNenny (Woman), Hannah Cabell (Laura) and Brian Avers (Pierre), are all completely real in their characterizations.

Performed without an intermission, the ninety absorbing minutes zoom right by.  There is no time for minds to wander or ask what is going on.  Director Doug Hughes assures that the journey from start to finish is absorbing.

Scott Pask’s high end condo set is detail perfect.  Donald Holder’s startling lighting and Fitz Patton’s mood creating original music add to the over-all quality of the production.

Capsule judgment:  Florian Zeller’s THE FATHER is a compelling and heart-breaking script that exposes two sides of the mental aging and deterioration process.  The production is exceptionally well-conceived and performed.  In spite of humorous interludes, some may find the play almost too emotionally charged.  That being said, the production is a must see for anyone, as sooner or later they may well be the caretaker of an André, or an André, themselves.

Where:  Manhattan Theatre Club, Samuel J. Friedman Theatre
    261 W. 47th Street
Run:  Through June 11, 2016