By: Paulanne Simmons
There’s one towering reason to see Florian Zeller’s The Father, translated from the French by Christopher Hampton. And that’s Frank Langella, who plays the father, an elderly man named André, who is sinking inexorably into dementia.Frank Langella, Katrhryn Erbe
That’s not to say Kathryn Erbe, who plays André’s daughter, Anne, and the four other actors in supporting roles are not excellent. But without Langella’s nuanced performance, The Father would be just another drama in the ever-growing field of Alzheimer stories.
Zeller, with the help of director Doug Hughes, attempts to show the progress of the disease through André’s eyes. Anne is both heroic and frustrated in her struggle to deal with her father. But we are not sure if she is married or divorced, staying in Paris or moving to London, visiting her father’s apartment or living with him in her own.
We do know that Anne brings in a series of caregiver whom André rejects, charms or tries to traumatize. Oh how we would like to have seen this man in his prime!
André’s unraveling mind is illustrated in over a dozen scenes. Between scenes, Hughes surrounds the stage with flashing lights to demonstrate the disconnect between the flow of images, thoughts and reality in Andre’s mind. The set is rearranged between scenes so the audience feels as disoriented as André.
Unfortunately, often the audience feels confused as well as disoriented. When one of the men in Anne’s life physically abuses André, we’re not sure if this actually happened or only happened in André’s mind. And what about those scenes in which André does not appear? Are they real? Has André imagined them?
Zeller’s mixture of absurdity and reality is certainly a mainstay of French theater. But the suffering of individuals living with Alzheimer’s and those who love them does not seem to fit well with existential drama or it’s critical observations of society.
We know very well where Anne and André are. And that’s a hell which Langella seems to understand perfectly.
The Father, at MTC’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 361 West 47 Street. Photos: Joan Marcus