Isabelle Huppert Suffers (Again!) in Surreal Off-Broadway Play

Watching Florian Zeller's 'The Mother,' we suffer right along with the glorious French actress.

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Isabelle Huppert, Chris Noth and Justice Smith in "The Mother." Photo: Ahron R. Foster.

What is it with Isabelle Huppert? She seems to build her stage and screen career around portraying tormented women — only tormented women. Perhaps they populate the only scripts sent to her. Perhaps producers hoping to pin her down for marquee value know her predilections and only send her scripts in which the focal woman is a tormented soul. If so, you could almost hear them saying “Alors, voici une tasse de a la Huppert” (“This one is Huppert’s cup of tea”).

And what is it with us Huppert fans? Heading into anything, stage or screen, with her name above or near the title, we have a pretty good idea of what we’re going to get, and we go anyway — maybe all the faster. Do we love to see her suffer? Do we get off watching her square, high-cheeked, solemn face register darker emotions? Is it rewarding to observe her sinking into the absolutely deepest depths of despair? Do we prefer to watch her do our suffering for us rather than having us undergo those agonies ourselves?

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To name only one of Huppert’s previous on-stage appearances in NYC, there was Sarah Kane’s 4.48 Psychosis. (Now, there’s a title that lays on the line what you’ll get.) For the monologue, presented at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 2005, Huppert stood, almost never moving, for 105 minutes while pouring out her character’s despair. How did she do it? Why did she do it? She is who she is. And she did it.

Now Huppert is back, Off-Broadway in the Atlantic Theater Company’s production of Florian Zeller’s The Mother (in a sleek translation by Christopher Hampton) and again she’s asking for it. Though The Mother is only 85 minutes long, Huppert stretches it by being on view as the audience enters. She’s not standing this time, but sitting on a long bench that set designer Mark Wendland has made out of several white sectionals. She has her character’s thoughts on her face; she buries her head in her hands; she reads a book intermittently. Costumer Anita Yavich has Huppert looking tres chic in a grey sweater and long skirt. This lets us know that desolation can come to the well-heeled as well as to the deprived.

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No one could be blamed for thinking that the furniture — and Huppert sitting on it — is that of an airport waiting room and that Huppert’s character is waiting impatiently for her flight. But this is just an odd design choice made by Wendland with the director, Trip Cullman.

Huppert, you see, is The Mother — Anne — waiting at home for her husband to arrive. But not even some wealthy someone on Avenue Foch would furnish a maison in this manner. We realize, therefore, that we have been plunged into Zeller’s surreal world.

When Ben Stanton’s lighting signals that the play has begun, The Father — David (Chris Noth) — returns to announce that he’s got to move fast: he’s due to attend a seminar. Not so fast, says Anne, in what Lucy Mackinnon’s projections inform us is “Un,” or part one, of what we’re about to witness.

Having stewed before us for so long, Anne now badgers David with, among other digs, repeated queries about whether he had a nice day. She’s goes on about his philandering and how The Son — Nicolas (Justice Smith) — habitually ignores her phone calls.

David grows increasingly puzzled by and angry at Anne’s behavior, and then there is what amounts to a jump-cut. Now the action begins again, the couple carrying on more pleasantly. And then, after another jump cut, carrying on even more pleasantly.

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But the pleasantness doesn’t settle in for long, because in some of the following jump-cut scenes, Nicolas begins to drop by in order to exacerbate Anne’s hurt feelings. Eventually, Nicolas’ girlfriend, Emily (Odessa Young), happens along. If she is Nicolas’ girlfriend, that is. Maybe she’s David’s girlfriend? Perhaps I should know who she is, but I don’t. Perhaps playwright Zeller doesn’t want us to be certain.

As the accumulating scenes offer varying versions of the characters’ interactions, we can draw only vague conclusions about Anne, David, Nicolas and Emily. Zeller’s four projected sections (undeux, trois, quatre — the script has them as four acts) seem only to establish Anne as an inconsolably unhappy mother and wife, David as possibly unfaithful as a result of Anne’s depression(s), Nicolas as not much of a son, and Emily merely caught up in it all.

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It’s no picnic spending time with these people; the more they hopscotch from this possible exchange to the next, the less the play holds substantial meaning. When Anne (who either has or hasn’t finally died) asks “What was all that for?,” she may be speaking for us, too.

But we do get our unadulterated Huppert, woe-is-me-ing to beat the band, every bit as good as it ever is. The famous French malaise, the deep-seated angoisse — it’s all on full display; Huppert embodies it like Marianne symbolizes France. She’s taut, lean to the point of skinny, and looks great doffing her grey ensemble in favor of a red mini-dress.

Noth has the required impatience of David, and his exasperation. Smith is enigmatically unappealing in the right measure. Odessa is a nice, if anonymous, Everygirl.

Zeller’s play dates from 2010 and got him farther along to his current status as a top contemporary French playwright, but he made more of a splash in 2012 with The Father, a conventional and much better work. He completed his family trilogy last month in London with The Son (Nicolas again) in another Hampton translation. There’s no question Zeller’s work is worth watching — I greatly enjoyed his Le Mensonge (The Lie) — and that even if The Mother isn’t a feast for the eye or the ear, there is always Huppert.