The Father

 

 

 

 

 

by Brian Scott Lipton

 

No American actor has more arrows in his quiver than three-time Tony Award winner Frank Langella, and it’s little surprise that he uses each and every one to hit the bullseye in Florian Zeller’s The Father. making its Broadway debut at Manhattan Theatre Club’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre under Doug Hughes’ assured direction. Calling on everything from twinkling charm to pointed bitchery, childlike hurt to full-grown anger, a raised eyebrow or a tap-dancing foot, this master thespian paints a shattering portrait of a man caught in the grips of Alzheimer’s disease, unwilling to go gently into the darkness, yet unable to stop the inevitable. It will be no surprise if Langella adds a fourth spinning statuette to his mantle on June 12.

 

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Using a series of short, staccato-like scenes, the work gives us a fearful glimpse into the confused mind of Andre (Langella), an 80-year-old Parisian retiree. Certain key moments in his life play out in different ways, reflecting Andre’s loss of his faculties. Is his daughter Anne (a very fine Kathryn Erbe) single and planning to move to London? Is she married? And if so to whom, the man we first meet (Charles Borland, modestly effective in a variety of roles) or the second, a rather blustering fellow named Pierre (a convincing Brian Avers). Oh, and by the way, whose “flat” are we in anyway? (The play was recently presented in London, hence the Britishisms used by translator Christopher Hampton.) The narrative keeps shifting, the room (designed by Scott Pask) practically changes shape.

 

Without question, The Father will prove particularly affecting for anyone who is battling Alzheimer’s or dementia, has a parent or loved one with this disease, or is soon to be in either position (which is true of most of MTC’s audience). But just because the play moves us or frightens us, that doesn’t make it well crafted.

 

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And in many ways, it’s a second-rate piece of playwriting. Zeller seems to enjoy trickery for trickery’s sake at times. Moreover, it makes little sense that some of the scenes between Anne and Pierre should get replayed, as neither of them are suffering from any kind of memory loss. And while the work runs a mere 90 minutes, much of the dialogue is unnecessarily repetitive. (He also waits far too long to semi-reveal the fate of a much-talked-about offstage character.) In many ways, Zeller seems to have taken lessons from his fellow French dramatist Yazmina Reza, whose work I find equally exasperating.

 

Langella, for all his bravura bravado, is a generous scene partner. He plays particularly well opposite the women in the cast, who also include the always excellent Hannah Cabell and the versatile Kathleen McNenny. (Perhaps he should reconsider doing another King Lear with this show’s three actresses.) But let’s face it, he could be working simply with the potted tree that makes an unexpected appearance in one scene, and their conversation would seem entirely believable.

 

So let us thank the theatrical gods that Frank Langella hasn’t forgotten how to do what he does so brilliantly. That will be a sad day indeed!

 

 

The Father. Through June 12 at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre (261 West 47th Street, between Sixth Avenue and Broadway). www.ManhattanTheatreClub.com

 

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