New York City Theater
Samuel J. Friedman Theater
Does it matter that Florian Zeller’s prize-winning “The Father” is absorbing but superficial? No. Does it matter that the playwright evokes pity and terror yet digs no further than the protagonist’s present-day illness, short-shrifting details of his background? No, again. Why? Because the title role of this Manhattan Theater Club production is played by one of the theater’s greatest, unmissable talents, Frank Langella.
For decades, the actor has seduced, engaged, startled and romanticized us. From lizard to president, vampire to martyr, Langella has created memorable, distinct characters. He’s also played King Lear, a role in some ways akin to the one in Zeller’s play about a man losing his mind. Langella is once again scaring us and causing tears to flow. As the irascible André, he is annoying, flirtatious, pitiful, charming, angry and devastating.
André is in the final stages of Alzheimer’s. People aren’t who they say they are or appear to be. He dwells in apartments that look alike, but aren’t, with furniture that used to be here, but isn’t. One daughter is confused with another, even though the other is dead, killed in an accident of some sort.
As crisply translated from the French by Christopher Hampton, “The Father” throws the audience as much off balance as it does André. We experience what he experiences. We, too, are confused when scenes are repeated with ever-so-slight variations, when plants and pictures appear and disappear, when visitors seem to change names and identities.
Most frightening of all, time is mutable. “I have two watches,” says André. “One on my wrist and the other in my head.” Priding himself on being punctual – he was an engineer or was it a tap dancer? -- losing his watch equals losing time equals losing memory. Reverting slowly, surely, to childhood, his desperation will make audiences weep.
Langella towers over all. That stance, that voice, those darting eyes, those lightning mood changes – all become increasingly tinged with melancholy and confusion.
The rest of the cast pales in his shadow. The women – Kathryn Erbe as daughter Anne, Kathleeen McNenny as a nurse, Hannah Cabell as a social worker – are sympathetic. The men -- Charles Borland as a doctor and Brian Avers as Anne’s husband -- are not.
Director Doug Hughes clarifies the incongruous, incomprehensible situations that befuddle André’s mind, creating a ”tragic farce” both dire and sad. We may not learn enough about André, but we’re clued into the majestic Langella – and that’s quite enough.
--David A. Rosenberg
April 22, 2016