By Brian Scott Lipton
Isabelle Huppert sits silently on the world’s longest white leather couch for seemingly countless minutes on the stage of the Atlantic Theater before Florian Zeller’s drama, “The Mother,” actually begins, leading audience members to wonder if this legendary French actress will ever speak. But once she does, she rarely stops during the play’s 85 minutes – although some of you may wish she had just kept her mouth shut.
Mind you, this comment has nothing to do with Huppert’s monumental performance and more to do with what she’s been asked to say. Zeller’s work (translated here by Christopher Hampton) is a sometimes devastating and painful portrait of an unhappy, 47-year-old woman seeking further into depression and possibly madness, which can be very hard for some people to hear and watch. It’s also a piece fueled by repetition, of both whole scenes and specific words, a concept that too quickly grows both tedious and slightly exhausting.
As becomes abundantly clear, Anne, a Frenchwoman living in America, has defined herself simply as “the mother.” And now that she is no longer needed by her adult children, who rarely visit, and she feels ignored, if not emotionally abandoned, by her businessman husband David (an underwhelming Chris Noth), all she is left with is a purposeless present, a too-fondly remembered past and a probable addiction to sleeping pills (and who knows what else).
This disastrous combination leads her to make sometimes strange, often horrible remarks to those in her presence, not just to David – whom she is convinced is ready to leave her for good — but also to her beloved son Nicholas (a good-enough Justice Smith) and Emily (a strong Odessa Young), the girl he’s living with whom Anne clearly dislikes.
Or does she say things? Are these people even in her ultra-minimalist house (designed by Mark Wendland)? As Zeller did in “The Father,” he refuses to tell the story in a conventionally linear fashion. Each scene is played more than once and it’s hard to know which version of events, if any of them, actually happened. And truth be told, it’s possible you may not care after a while; a problem Trip Cullman’s rather simple direction simply cannot solve.
Fortunately, Huppert offers one of the most extraordinary displays of physical and verbal acting you’ll see on the stage this season. You simply won’t be able to take your eyes off her whether she’s simply putting on stockings, dancing around the apartment in her new, slightly too short red dress (the costumes are by Anita Yauch), or flickering her face in disgust or disbelief. Her line readings are similarly expert; she’s loving one second, hateful the next, seemingly in control this minute and utterly confused the minute after.
And even if you miss a word or two (Huppert’s English is heavily accented), it really doesn’t matter. The message Zeller wants to convey about this woman’s wasted life is unmistakable.
Photos: Aaron R. Foster
“The Mother” continues through Saturday, April 13th at the Linda Gross Theater (336 West 20th Street). For tickets and information, visit atlantictheater.org or call 866-811-4111.