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The Father

The Father

Photo - Joan Marcus

Reviewed by Elizabeth Ahlfors


The empty look of dementia is heart-breaking as slowly, inevitably, the soul of the person fades away, leaving behind a shell. Frank Langella evokes this portrait of hell in a tour-de-force performance of The Father at the Samuel J. Friedman Theater. In what French playwright Florian Zeller calls a "tragic farce," it is electrifying to watch this master at his trade delve into a new level of hell and carry you with him.

Three-time Tony Award winner, Langella, now aged 78, is at the top of his game, in full command of the stage as the proud, elegant Andre struggles with slippery memories and a disoriented present. Directed by Doug Hughes (Doubt), the perspective of the play is Andre's deteriorating mind, following his perplexed viewpoint as characters come and go and his surroundings constantly shift.

Andre lives in a handsome Paris flat. Or is it his flat? His stressed out daughter, Anne, played by Kathryn Erbe (TV's Law & Order: Criminal Intent) reveals that he is actually living in her home. Now Anne is scolding him for again firing his latest caretakers. She is moving to London with her lover. However, none of this is how Andre, bewildered and exasperated, hears it.

Between scenes, light designer Donald Holder sends irritating flashes of light around the proscenium like blinding shut-downs in the brain.  When a new scene begins, time sequences have again shifted and something is missing, like a comfortable chair or a painting gone from the wall.

One lighter moment shows the several sides of Andre. Anne introduces him to the latest caretaker, Laura (Hannah Cabell). Earlier, she warned Laura, "He has his ways... He can be quite eccentric." Now, Andre surprises everyone with his seductive side. Telling Laura she is gorgeous, he adds that used to be a tap dancer.  Anne watches him, amazed; he used to be an engineer and now he is tap dancing in his pajamas, charming and witty. Then suddenly in a flash, he turns caustic, telling Laura she has an "unbearable habit of laughing inanely." A brief moment of lightness and warmth is gone. The next day he does not remember Laura.

With barbed bitchiness, he tells Anne that his younger daughter, Elise, was always his favorite. "She's an angel." Andre does not remember that Elise has been gone for years, the reason not revealed until later.

It is evident that at some level Andre is aware of losing control of his mind, his life, himself and this terrifies him. "I feel as if... I feel as if I'm losing all my leaves, one after another," he says. Langella makes this sadly clear, tracing Andre's underlying fear and increasing desperation through his face, hands and that resonant voice that fades into childlike cries at the end. Unbearable is the final scene where dementia has overwhelmed him and he cries for his mother.

Manhattan Theatre Club presents this premiere of Florian Zeller’s play by special arrangement with Theatre Royal Bath Productions. Christopher Hampton translated the play from French, and at times, uses British expressions, like "flat" for "apartment." It is not a major distraction. Scott Pask's set of the apartment and its sequence of alterations further points out Andre's confused mind as does Catherine Zuber, dressing him at the start in upscale casual wear but as Andre deteriorates, he won't change out of his pajamas.

The excellent cast includes Elbe, poised but overwhelmed both by the care her father requires and her grief at losing the man he once was. Supporting plays include Brian Avers, Charles Borland, Kathleen McNenny and Hannah Cabell.

It is Frank Langella, however, who excels at the pinnacle in his career, delivering a consummate drama performance of the season.

The Father
Manhattan Theatre Club
Samuel Friedman Theater
261 - West 47 Street 
Previews: March 22, 2016, Opened: April 14, 2016. Closing: June 12, 2016
Playwright: Florian Zeller, with a translation by Christopher Hampton
Director: Doug Hughes
90 minutes. No intermission
Reviewed by Elizabeth Ahlfors