“The Father” – Puzzling and Frightening

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Frank Langella and Kathryn Erbe. Photo by Joan Marcus.

By Karen Isaacs

I’ll admit that I am still puzzled by The Father by French playwright Florian Zeller that is now at the Samuel J. Friedman Theater on West 47th Street to June 10.

Is it meant to be a surrealist play?  Is the playwright attempting to have us experience what the central character, André, played by Frank Langella, is experiencing?  Is it a take on the classic play and movie Gaslight?  And finally, do today’s theater audiences who are often over 55, really need to see another play about the horrors of what use to be called senility?

Zeller is little known in the English speaking world, but at least some critics consider him a major literary talent and a hot commodity. He has won numerous awards and written many plays but few have been translated.

Christopher Hampton, whose works have garnered four Tony nominations, has translated this work which was first produced in England.  Among Hampton’s other works is the book and lyrics for the musical Sunset Boulevard, as well as the translation of Les Liaisons Danereuses for which he won an Oscar for best screenplay.

André is aging and succumbing to memory loss, dementia or Alzheimer’s; it is difficult to tell.  He lives alone – or does he? Is it his apartment or his daughter’s? Was he tap-dancer or an engineer? Is his daughter married or not?  Perhaps she is moving to London to live with a new love.

Little is sure to us as we apparently experience André’s world.  Which of these things are true may not matter or they may matter a great deal.

The audience is also left wondering about two characters who appear periodically. Sometimes they claim to be his daughter and her husband/lover. Other times the woman claims to be his caregiver, but does he have one?

Frank Langella and Kathryn Erbe. Photo by Joan Marcus.

If it all sounds confusing it can be. During the first part of the play, the audience spends time trying to get its bearings.  It opens with André’s daughter, Anne, played by Kathryn Erbe arriving after he apparently has insulted (possibly hit?) a caregiver. She is exasperated and tells him, she will be moving to London.  There is talk about her sister, whom André cruelly says was magnificent and the one he loved.

But what we think we know is quickly turned on its heels. Soon she is interviewing another potential care-giver. André is charming and all seems to be going well. Yet even then, he makes a cruel remark about the woman.

Soon, strange things happen.  Another woman followed by a man, billed simply as Woman and Man show up in the apartment. The woman claims she is Anne.  André becomes puzzled and upset by all of this.

By then, you have a sense that André is in some stage of dementia and that the author is playing out his confusions and emotions.  He can be charming; he can be cruel.  He recognizes people and things and then doesn’t.  He’s confused about what is reality.

It is role made for an actor like Frank Langella – a consummate stage performer (I just recently watched yet again his Prospero on the dvd of The Tempest done at the Stratford, Ontario Shakespeare Festival).  He has a complete bag of tricks and can keep all eyes on him.  At times, some of his mannerisms—when he is “being charming” remind me of Olivier. To say that he can “chew the scenery with the best of them” is not an insult or criticism but admiration for his talents.

You are upset with him and his random cruelty to his daughter and others, but you also sympathize with this vital man slowing losing everything.  There is one moment in the play, I won’t reveal the details, where the audience gasps in horror and our fears and sympathies immediately focus on him.

The surrounding cast is good. Kathryn Erbe is the classic “sandwich generation” woman

Kathryn Erbe. Photo by Joan Marcus

trying to juggle career, spouse/lover and care for her father. She is exasperated and concerned; loving and wounded. The other actors have less to do and less defined roles but each is good.

Doug Hughes, former artistic director at Long Wharf directs this piece with understanding. He keeps the mood swinging as it must be swinging for André.

The scenic design by Scott Pask gives us a lovely Paris apartment although I felt the symbolism of how it changes over time, too obvious.  Donald Holder’s lighting adds to our mood as does the music and sound design by Fitz Patton.  Catherine Zuber has created costumes that would be at home on the streets of Paris.

It is hard to say that The Father is enjoyable, since it plays out before us, the greatest fear of many aging Americans. But it is emotionally intense, and the opportunity to see Langella exhibit his formidable talents is always one not to be passed on.

The Father is a Manhattan Theater Club production at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 W. 47th St., thought June 10.  For tickets visit Telecharge.com

Frank Langella and  Hannah Cabell.Photo by Joan Marcus

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