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The Height of the Storm

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - September 24, 2019

The Height of the Storm by Florian Zeller. Translated by Christopher Hampton. Directed by Jonathan Kent. Scenic and costume design by Anthony Ward. Lighting design by Hugh Vanstone. Sound design by Paul Groothuis. Original music by Gary Yershon. Cast: Jonathan Pryce, Amanda Drew, Eileen Atkins, Lisa O’Hare, Lucy Cohu, and James Hillier.
Theatre: Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 West 47th Street between Broadway and 8th Avenue
Tickets: Telecharge

Eileen Atkins and Jonathan Pryce
Photo by Joan Marcus

"I'll always be with you." Are these words of comfort? Or might they be a veiled threat? As delivered by Eileen Atkins, one of the great actresses of the English-speaking world, the line can be understood to convey both messages simultaneously. Such meaningful ambiguity is representative of the entirety of Florian Zeller's The Height of the Storm, a multifaceted Rubik's Cube of a play opening tonight at the Friedman Theatre. That Ms. Atkins says these words to Jonathan Pryce, one of the great actors of the English-speaking world, just adds to the myriad of pleasures to be found.

Think of The Height of the Storm as a ghost story, one in which the ghosts are either real or merely constructs emanating from one or more of the characters' minds. And maybe the distinction doesn't matter. Atkins and Pryce so richly portray a long-married couple intertwined with each other's lives, that the thread connecting them is able to surmount any such petty consideration.

If you are familiar with Florian Zeller's other works, such as The Father and The Mother, both of which had New York mountings in recent years, you will recognize themes and style. Both plays express a fascination with the unreliability of memory and with the tenuous hold we have on reality. There also is a decidedly Pinteresque approach to the French playwright's technique, an approach which, with The Height of the Storm, no longer seems so much imitative as evocative. Indeed, one day we might be using the expression "Zelleresque" to describe the transition to something uniquely his own.

There are certain deliberate links to The Father, however. That play, a case study of the unreliable narrator, focuses on the disintegrating mind of an elderly man named André. In The Height of the Storm, Mr. Pryce plays a character who goes by that very same name and who also seems to be sinking into dementia.

This André, a renowned writer, spends long minutes staring out the window of his French country home (beautifully captured in Anthony Ward's tall, angular, and well-worn, lived-in set design), seemingly oblivious to his daughter Anne (Amanda Drew). When she is able to grab his attention, he is easily distracted, confused, or angered. And he nearly shuts down in a panic any time his wife Madeleine, whose very name conjures up Marcel Proust and that memory-triggering little cookie of his, leaves the room.

Anne is on hand to sort through her father's papers, including a mysterious secret diary, for publication. It also seems she is there to gently prod him into selling the family home and moving into an institutionalized setting, a place simply referred to as "The Blue House." She is joined at times by her sister Elise (Lisa O'Hare), who spends an inordinate amount of time on her cell phone, and by two vaguely menacing and personality-shifting outsiders called "The Woman" (Lucy Cohu) and "The Man" (James Hillier).

Some of the conversations revolve around the practical and mundane, such as the preparation and cooking of mushrooms, though, as with everything else, there is possibly a sinister side even to that. At other times, buried secrets threaten to emerge (what is in those diaries that André is hiding?) Sometimes the characters interact normally; sometimes they fail to connect at all. Whether any of them occupy the same time frame or even exist is only one of the plot points you may wish to ponder during the always fascinating 80-minute play. For the record, it would seem that the playwright would have us eschew any such hypothesizing. As André puts it at one point, "There's nothing to understand. People who try to understand things are morons." But, really, who can resist?

Plays that function outside of the realm of straightforward, clearly delineated storytelling are not to everyone's liking, of course. But between Atkins and Pryce's exquisitely detailed performances, Jonathan Kent's beautifully modulated direction, translator Christopher Hampton's impeccable rendition into English from the original French script, and the design elements (kudos to some superbly moody lighting by Hugh Vanstone), this is one thrilling evening of theater.