By: Isa Goldberg
October 3, 2019: French playwright Florian Zeller, well known in New York theater for his plays, The Father (Frank Langella) and The Mother (Isabelle Huppert), tells stories in a most outré fashion. Currently, The Height of The Storm translated by Christopher Hampton, at the Manhattan Theatre Club, stars two masters of the British stage, Jonathan Pryce and Eileen Atkins.
That Zeller’s plays are lodged somewhere in his characters’ psychic machinations, and projections, makes the presence of such accomplished actors essential. To create a fundamental, believable reality, dispense of it like soap bubbles, reinvent it with memories, and score it with infidelities, in the way Zeller’s characters do, requires the unshakeable confidence and skill of stage icons the size of Ms. Atkins and Mr. Pryce.
In Height of The Storm, Zeller addresses his ongoing interest in the life of the mysterious mind, through Andre’s Kafkaesque trials. As portrayed by a nearly wild, and disheveled Pryce, Andre cannot accept what is going on around him. He’s tortured from beginning to end by the demands his daughters, and so-called friends are putting on him to move into housing more suitable for the elderly. Perhaps, he’s suffering from dementia.
Finally, as he sees reality falling away from him – in spite of his vigorous denial – he implores them, “What is my position here? What is my position? My position! What is my position here? My position. Here. What is it? My position… what is it?
To make matters more complicated, Andre is a writer, a builder of fictions, and a diarist who declares his infidelities in his personal journals. At times it appears that he may already be in the grave. At others, that he’s just harboring secrets, or mourning the loss of his wife, Madeline. Regardless, he fears exposure, and he fears reprisal, in the same way he fears death. In his demented mental state, and his paranoia, both appear to be a way of getting back.
In contrast, Atkins portrays Madeline, with a taut and balanced air. Attending to the vegetable garden, preparing their favorite omelet with mushrooms (which “can go either way”), and weeding out her daughters’ complaints, are the spine of her daily life. While lithe, she is also reflective.
Like Andre, Madeline is opaque. Is she the one who has died, and therefore the cause of Andre’s existential grief? Or, is she the memory around which life continues to gyrate? One never knows.
What is important is the fact that together they make a whole person. Otherwise, who knows. Without the cocoon of marriage who would they be, what would they do, how would they manage? Like the audience, these are questions the other characters also have?
Surrounded by a well-honed ensemble, Amanda Drew and Lisa O’Hare as their daughters, Lucy Cohu as The Woman and James Hillier as The Man, the old couples’ secrets remain under shrouds. Try as they may, or as Andre fears they may, we never really pierce the mysteries that are here.
Anthony Ward’s Scenic Design of a warm country kitchen, and Hugh Vanstone’s nuanced lighting create an intense environment, cast in shadows, and often foggy. Director Jonathan Kent masterfully leads the way through the land minds Zeller has put in place.
The Height of the Storm
Manhattan Theatre Club at Samuel J. Friedman Theater, 261 W. 47th St., NYC.
Tue 7pm, Wed 2pm & 7pm, Thu—Fri, 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 2pm.
Running time: one hour and 20 mins. with no intermission. (212) 239-6200. www.telecharge.com.
Sept. 24—Nov. 17, 2019
Photography: Joan Marcus