By Barbara & Scott Siegel
Greatness? Two Plays: The Father & The Humans
While musicals have historically accounted for approximately ninety percent of theater ticket sales during the modern Broadway era, the theatrical drama (with rare exception) has usually been seen as the purer art form. Art with a capital “A” surrounds the works of Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, Edward Albee, etc. Of course, artists of that magnitude don’t come along very often – and even when they do, their work isn’t always appreciated in the moment. But perhaps we should take this particular moment to look at two current straight dramas and consider if either of them might suggest greatness…
The Father just opened to rave reviews at the Manhattan Theater Club’s Broadway stage, The Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, and certainly in its unswerving, piercing look into the blind alleys of Alzheimer’s Disease, it is a work of uncompromising intensity. The play, by French playwright Florian Zeller, is based on a brilliant, simple conceit: we see the world of our tragic protagonist (the aged Andre, played by Frank Langella) only as he experiences it. The writing is crisp, the scenes emotionally honest, often cruel (as is life), and the journey we take with the play is genuinely powerful. But is it a great play?
No, The Father is a great actor’s vehicle. Not to diminish the play, which is elegant in its construction, it requires a towering actor in the role of Andre, which in this case it has in the person of Mr. Langella. But in the hands of a lesser actor, the play would not just be lesser, itself, it could be a flinching embarrassment. In this instance, give the Tony Award to Frank Langella before you give it to the play. His performance is so assured, so internalized, so commanding, that one has to believe that this is the culmination of a great actor’s lifetime.
But if you want to see a truly great play – a play that while entirely rooted in time and place – will unquestionably work whenever or wherever theater happens in the future — then go see The Humans at The Helen Hayes Theater. It is the richest, most brilliantly layered family drama that Broadway has seen in many a decade. Stephen Karam, the playwright, isn’t simply gifted, he is a gift, himself, to the theater.
Without a hint of melodrama, interlocking stories of immense passion, compassion, sorrow, and sin emerge within these absolutely (fabulously) ordinary people. A magnificent ensemble led by Reed Birney and Jayne Houdyshell inhabit their characters, yet the play is so effortlessly brilliant that it would still shine with actors of more modest skill.
Brilliantly titled “The Humans,” because it is ultimately about the human condition of striving and inevitably failing – but with such love, dignity, and empathy — that one simply must weep at the sheer breadth of Mr. Karam’s vision…and talent. Simply put, it’s the best new play on Broadway this season.
Photos: Joan Marcus