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Broadway Reviews

The Father

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - March 31, 2016

The Father by Florian Zeller. Translated by Christopher Hampton. Directed by Doug Hughes. General Manager Florie Seery. Scenic design by Scott Pask. Costume design by Catherine Zuber. Lighting design by Donald Holder. Original music & sound design by Fitz Patton. Illusion Consultant Jim Steinmeyer. Cast: Frank Langella, Kathryn Erbe, Brian Avers, Charles Borland, Hannah Cabell, Kathleen McNenny.
Theatre: Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 West 47th Street, between Broadway and 8th Avenue
Running Time: 90 minutes with no intermission
Tickets: Telecharge

Frank Langella
Photo by Joan Marcus

Darkness encroaches softly but surely in The Father, which just opened at the Samuel J. Friedman in a Manhattan Theatre Club production. In the process, the ordinary gives way to the fantastic, the comforting to the ghastly, and the known to the unknown—maybe. That for most of this 90-minute evening you can't be positive exactly what's real and what isn't is very much the point of French playwright Florian Zeller's work: Everything you think you understand is always subject to reconsideration and reevaluation, whether you choose to accept it or not. That, ultimately, is life, for better or worse.

Working from a translation by Christopher Hampton, director Doug Hughes and his sublime star, Frank Langella, force you to feel this from the inside out in ways that will give you a breath-stealing new appreciation of what it means to literally lose yourself. As the elderly André (Langella) stumbles through an increasingly unwieldy existence that no longer obeys recognizable laws, so too do the rules of the theatre seem to break down around him. Actors' entrances and exits become unpredictable, even magical, in when and how they occur. Scott Pask's elegant-cozy apartment set looks to both shrink in size and dissolve as you watch. Even the way Donald Holder's lights lining the proscenium flicker and change leave you wondering what, if anything, about your own memory can be trusted.

This is, of course, perfectly in keeping with André's woes. When the curtain rises, he's arguing with a woman (Kathryn Erbe) he insists is his daughter Anne about missing wristwatch he believes was stolen by the (now-former) caregiver she claims he assaulted with a curtain rod. Naturally, the watch shows up in its usual hiding place a few minutes later. But a greater loss could be on the horizon: Anne tells André that she's planning on moving to London to be with her new boyfriend, and if André can't live with a helper, then she might have to make other, even less-satisfactory, arrangements.

In the next scene, we meet the boyfriend, Pierre, or at least a man who claims to be Pierre. (In any case, he's played by Charles Borland.) André, however, doesn't actually know him. Should he? The man thinks so, and is quite insistent on who he is. Then when Anne comes in not long after, they... But wait: It doesn't look at all like the same Anne we saw earlier. It looks like a different performer altogether (Kathleen McNenny, for the record). And it's not too many scenes afterward that a second—or is it a first?—Pierre (Brian Avers) appears, who claims the same role and relationship as the first, and a new young woman (Hannah Cabell) who claims to be named Laura and a prospective new nurse, but changes into the second Anne's opinion with astonishing ease.

If it sounds confusing, it is—but intentionally so, so it isn't. Gradually, a coherent plot and consistent characters begin to emerge, but with enough uncertainty left around the edges that you're guided to wonder what's going on at every new turn. Soon, when people are leaving the disintegrating stage from one direction and reappearing not long after from the other in a totally different guise, and bearing an incompatible personality with the person or people we knew before, you're finding yourself no better off than André. Like him, you're awash in an existence that barely qualifies as such, where the most basic precepts are forever shifting right in front of your eyes, and adjusting to them—to say nothing of absorbing them—is a labor that would bring Hercules to his knees.

Frank Langella and Kathryn Erbe
Photo by Joan Marcus

It's powerfully theatrical, in no small part because Langella is so flawlessly cast. He's an actor who's at once frightening and fatherly, as delicate as a flower petal and as strong as an iron girder. These are exactly the qualities André needs: We have to see him as he sees himself, as others see him, and in the unsettlingly truthful place in between, and Langella projects all of that with consummate skill. Both looking every minute of his age of 78 and almost reading too young to even have children, he more even than Zeller and Hughes imprisons you in the paradox of disbelief. This man can't be falling apart. Oh yes he can. And so can you. And don't you forget it. Now let me show you how.

Langella scales sweeping heights of magnetic stolidity and the depths of baby-like innocence, frequently at or near the same time. Yet he never demands that you love André or accept him for more or less than what he is: a man who is falling apart in slow motion and struggling with every fiber of his being to make as much sense as he can out of what he's still able to identify. That's more than enough—in fact, it's so much that by the time you reach the climactic final scenes, when the pieces are at last coming together into one chilling picture, you shouldn't be surprised if you find yourself, just as he is, craving escape from the madness.

Erbe gives a sensitive, deeply affecting performance that reveals her character—whoever she may be—as tortured and trapped in her own way, and it's a gorgeous, crystalline match for Langella's. The other actors struggle more visibly to make the necessary connections, with Avers especially overselling his version of Pierre as a grade-A jerk. But their parts are also written with less satisfying clarity, less human point: They're means to André's end, not meaningful in and of themselves.

That's the fatal flaw of The Father: For how much it gets right about André, and for the vivid palette of possibilities it gives its director, it has no concrete existence of its own outside its attempts to drown you in a sea of befuddlement. Its story is adequate, but hardly captivating; outside André and, to a considerably lesser extent, Anne (the real one), the characters are barely more than half-erased pencil sketches; and there's very little here that hasn't been explored more fully in other places.

Langella and Hughes ensure that the journey to the obvious destination is as elaborately appointed as you could wish, which is something. But should the last downward spiral into which we will all eventually swirl be as recognizable and comfortable as this one? For as wonderfully weird as so much of The Father is, in the end it falters because, compared to the topic it's tackling, it just isn't mysterious and terrifying enough.

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