On Florian Zeller’s THE FATHER

It’s always a risk to see a new show in its early previews. Generally, it takes time and experience in front of an audience for a cast to settle into the meat of their work. But Frank Langella is a different story:  He consistently appears at home in any role from the get-go.  There was no way I was going to miss his performance in The Father during this spring’s New York binge trip — preview or no.

A commanding and versatile actor, Langella can fill a stage with his presence, even if he’s playing a sick old man with Alzheimer’s disease.   Way back in 1977 he terrified my children and earned my wife’s not entirely pure attention in Broadway’s Dracula. I do believe she’d have freely offered her jugular to the man (under different circumstances, of course).  I’ve not seen Langella anywhere since, on stage or on screen, where he has not been powerfully and touchingly convincing, be he lover, villain, or super hero.   He was of course brilliant in Frost/Nixon, Starting Out in the Evening, Sherlock Holmes, The Mark of Zorro  (Yeah, yeah, I know, but have a look at the cast!),  and going back 46 years, in The Diary of a Mad Housewife.   Despite his more lucrative film career (64 movies), thankfully he remains committed to the stage.

IMG_0291The Father is one of four plays I attended in New York this spring that are up for Tony’s this coming Sunday night. The others are The Humans, Blackbird and The Crucible (the last two for best revival of a play). In addition, Langella himself is up for Best Actor … Mind you he already has three actor Tony statues at home, for Frost/Nixon, Seascape and Fortune’s Fool.  By the way, this is the 70th year the Tony’s have been awarded, and this show is far superior in entertainment value and generosity of spirit to that other awards show on the West Coast.  (I’m just saying….)

            The Father:  No — not the Swedish classic by August Strindberg (although Langella was on Broadway for that one too back in 1996). This one is by a hot young French playwright named Florian Zeller, and was translated into English by veteran playwright Christopher Hampton (Les Liaisons Dangereuses). It comes to New York with a considerable pedigree, including the best new play awards in both Britain and France.

This is the story of André, seemingly a retired dancer living with his daughter in a Parisian apartment. But not even that is necessarily so:  The play takes André’s own point of view, and André is increasingly suffering from Alzheimer’s Syndrome. His brain is beginning to disintegrate. As we watch him retreat into a perceived reality that makes no sense even to him, we quickly learn not to trust André’s perception of the world around him. Who exactly is Anne, for instance? Is she his own daughter, who wants to sell their apartment, get married, move to England, and move her father into a colorless assisted living facility where he will die alone?   Or is she his own private nurse, on whom he is emboldened to attempt seduction?

Zeller weaves a tangled web indeed, but the play itself somehow falls short of the tragedy in André’s soul. The man is surely in agony.   The final scene certainly captures the horror and terror of his condition at the end of a relentless downward path, largely with considerable help from Langella. But somehow the play felt too clever to let us really feel it. It was having too much fun with its own larger question: What’s real and what’s only the perception of a diseased mind?  So much that it got in the way of a powerful story.

“Fun?” you say? Yes, there are plenty of laughs to balance out the fear, and the play is sometimes described as a tragic farce.  But “Farce?” Let’s face it: When it’s playing to an audience of folks already terrified they’re showing early signs of Alzheimer’s, the laughs can feel pretty shallow.   It’s a risky choice for an evening out.

As to the problem inherent with attending previews? The price used to be more attractive and provide incentive. …not so much anymore. And when my friend and I saw it, the cast had had under their belts only one night of playing to an audience. Langella shone … as I knew he would. The rest of the cast? Not so much. They had their lines down cold, but they lacked the connection to the material that guarantees our full involvement with their characters.   I’m sure they have it by now. But alas, the play will close on Broadway on June 19, come what may, just five days after it might or might not win two “Best” Tony Awards.

Ah the ironies of Broadway! The old battle between art & commerce rears its ugly head once again.  And the winner is … ?

There is more to come from Mr. Zeller.  A companion piece, The Mother, has played in London, and his newest play, The Truth opened there in March to enthusiastic reviews.  They’ll no doubt be along. The Father will probably see light in regional productions, and may prove more gripping in more intimate venues. I may try it again, even without Langella.

COMING UP NEXT: Tony Nominees The Humans, and Blackbird.

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3 Responses to On Florian Zeller’s THE FATHER

  1. Ah, yes, good theatre should elicit uncomfortable laughs. Not the ephemeral laughs that sitcoms seek (laughs coming from our sense of superiority and safety compared to the hapless characters), but the laughs that remind us of our vulnerabilities, our dilemmas (aging or other). I think good theatre should be in part but significantly about the audience, not just the characters. If a production can remind us of our own frailty and mortality, and get us to laugh a little rather than be in denial or self-pitying, that production has done us a great service. My favorite tragic-yet-somehow-comic anecdote about Alzheimers involves Margaret Thatcher, who towards the end of her life always forgot that her husband had died, and so she over and over again went through the shock when asking about him of hearing that he had died, only to forget again. Ionesco and Kafka would probably have understood the comedy there, although even Thatcher’s bitterest political enemies should not want anyone to suffer that way. Thank you for this review and your observations, always interesting and always insightful.

    • Bill Rough says:

      Thanks, Stephen. I entirely agree that good theatre must ultimately be about us in the audience, providing us with a path for dealing with our own lives. As I’ve often said, if a play ain’t about ME, then I can’t find it useful at all, no matter how “good” it may be deemed by others. The laughter in The Father is plentiful, and it does indeed make us squirm — the best kind, if not always the most welcome in the moment. In the long run, we may find the awkward laugh is the most comforting.

  2. jzrart says:

    My dear, I would have never offered him my jugular. xo

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