Florian Zeller — whose The Father opened tonight at Manhattan Theatre Club’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre on Broadway — may be new to these shores, but in both France and England the 36-year-old playwright is to this decade what Yasmina Reza was to the 1990s.
Zeller’s plays are as hot and tangy as a bowl of soupe a l’oignon right out of the kitchen. In Paris, Le Mensonge, his boulevard comedy about marital infidelity, is on view at Theatre Edouard VII, where I saw it only a few weeks back and can attest to its sly cleverness.
In London, The Father has returned to the West End featuring Kenneth Cranham, who won an Olivier Award last week for his playing of the title role. Also in London is Zeller’s The Mother, a book-ending work to The Father, and Le Mensonge, which although it’s translated as The Lie, is offered as The Truth. (In the way the play is constructed, either title is appropriate.)
With all the success and attention coming at him, New York had better get ready for a Zeller deluge — all in Christopher Hampton translations. Of course, Hampton was also Reza’s translator of choice for God of Carnage
While The Father will undeniably get Zeller off to a rousing stateside start, the 90-minute opus isn’t in any way as pleasing a drawing-room romp as Le Mensonge. Nor is it intended to be. Indeed, when I saw the play in London last year, I was mightily impressed by its unflinching approach to André (Frank Langella), a man who’s slowly losing himself to dementia (an Alzheimer’s diagnosis is never specified). I was equally impressed with Cranham’s unflinching portrayal.
Zeller’s accomplishment is not to suggest to the audience what that deterioration looks like from outside (although he does), but from what André believes he’s experiencing. What the audience sees for the most part are André’s exchanges with his concerned daughter, Anne (Kathryn Erbe), who moved her afflicted dad from his stylish apartment to hers. Scott Pask’s set design, with it’s forest-green walls and tasteful furnishings, is exquisite. But André is now disoriented by his whereabouts.
Nor is André, who insists he can take care of himself, certain about the two men claiming to be Anne’s spouse (Charles Borland, Brian Avers). He’s also confused about an aide called Laura (Hannah Cabell) and another woman (Kathleen McNenny) who could be Laura. Zeller does a bang-up job of keeping the audience slightly off-balance about these accumulating conditions. The disorientation — for both André and us — is admirably canny.
[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Playwright Zeller adds an unnerving element[/pullquote]With Pask’s help, Zeller adds another unnerving element — consider this a spoiler alert. As the action carries on, objects on the set begin to disappear, symboling André gradually losing his faculties. At first, viewers may only subliminally register the loss of a painting on a wall or books from upstage shelves, but you feel the mounting uncertainties. These are tantamount to the uncertainties that someone in the throes of dementia experiences.
Adding to this shrewd correlative of loss are the many proscenium lights that flicker, thanks to designer Donald Holder, between the scenes and eventually become fewer and fewer.
With Cranham copping his Olivier, the role of André is now a Tony-contending possibility as well, and Langella, as always, gives an award-caliber performance. (In addition to his three Tonys, Langella won a 1996 Drama Desk Award for Best Actor for the title role in Roundabout Theatre Company’s revival of August Strindberg’s The Father.)
While Zeller’s father loses it in a way that is different from Strindberg’s father, Langella must still make a progression: from virile man at the troubling onset of a downward slope to institutional patient who is reduced to infantile helplessness in the arms of yet another nurse.
Langella’s height and strong features have always made him an imposing stage presence. Here these attributes serve him well again. Put another way, he knows how to use himself to maximum advantage. André’s anger, his bewilderment, his coming undone (especially as the set undergoes similar changes) are all on view.
True, the 2015-16 Broadway season already boasted first-rate male acting by Mark Strong in A View From the Bridge and Tim Pigott-Smith in Charles III — also depictions of men becoming unhinged. Nonetheless, we add Langella to the list of Tony-likely nominations.
It’s Doug Hughes who directs Langella to this vantage point, but he also does smartly by the rest of the cast, Erbe first among them. In smart Catherine Zuber-tailored suit and accessories, Erbe is the picture of crisp, worried sophistication. A divorced Parisian woman who’s fallen for a Londoner and wants to move there to be with him, Anne is torn by her father’s situation, and Erbe communicates it all.
While The Father isn’t the first effective portrait of Alzheimer’s Disease or dementia — the film Away From Her, starring Julie Christie, is relatively recent — this play stands out. It’s not only for Langella’s turn in it or Hughes’ direction of him, but for Zeller’s facility at putting spectators in the cross-hairs of dementia and its destructive ramifications. More of the same, please.