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The Mother

Theatre Review by David Hurst - March 11, 2019

Isabelle Huppert and Chris Noth
Photo by Ahron R Foster

As Anne in Florian Zeller's The Mother at the Atlantic Theater Company, Isabelle Huppert is such a mess that to say it's a portrait of a woman in extremis would be a profound understatement. Alternating between confrontational aggression and toxic depression, everyone in her family has abandoned her, but who can blame them? And after sitting thru The Mother, translated by Christopher Hampton and directed by Trip Cullman, you'll probably want to leave Anne, too. It's a grim, 85 intermission-less minutes, made even more so by Huppert's frequently impenetrable French accent.

The Mother was written in 2010, four years before Zeller wrote The Father, for which Frank Langella won a Best Actor Tony in 2016. But where The Father is a heartbreaking study of the effects of Alzheimer's on a man and his family, The Mother is a study of clinical depression told in a series of scenes, replayed multiple times in different variations to the point where we don't what's real and what's not. Anne's entire life has centered on raising her children, a daughter and a son, but, 25 years later, her kids have moved out and are busy leading their own lives. They don't call. They don't visit. And, to make matters worse, Anne is convinced her husband's late nights and seminar weekends are evidence he's having an affair with his secretary . . . or worse. The audience watches Anne's imagination run away with her, but to what end?

As Anne's husband Peter, Chris Noth is appropriately shocked and mystified by his wife's bipolar behavior. Their son Nicolas, a disengaged Justice Smith, appears the next morning having slipped in during the middle of the night after an argument with his girlfriend Emily, a savvy Odessa Young. But is Nicolas really there? Is Emily really his girlfriend? And is she really wearing the same red dress that Anne has bought herself in attempt to look young again? The only thing that seems real is Anne's wildly unhealthy obsession with her son evidenced by a surfeit of alcohol and pharmaceuticals, with the pill bottles of the later littering the sleek, modernist set courtesy of Mark Wendland. Ironically, Anne is totally dismissive of her unseen daughter, seemingly dooming her to the same fate she's now suffering.

To be sure, where you sit in the Atlantic's intimate Linda Gross Theater will make a big difference in how much you enjoy Huppert's riveting performance. The closer and the more center you are to Huppert, the better. The further back or to the side, you'll strain to understand her. This is a shame because if you miss every third word, you're missing a third of the play. Effortlessly chic and captivating to watch, Huppert is a wonderful actress. But when she speaks rapidly, which she does frequently, she becomes almost impossible to understand. Aging mothers whose children ignore them have been fodder for writers and dramatists for hundreds of years. The Mother puts a fresh spin on it but I'm not convinced it's a spin that adds anything new to the conversation.

The Mother
Through April 13
Linda Gross Theater, 336 Weat 20th Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: OvationTix

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