There has been a slew of theatrical works that address the issue of dementia over the past few years. In 2013 The Transport Group brought us a musical version of Alzheimer’s courtesy of The Memory Show starring Catherine Cox and Leslie Kritzer. That same year, Manhattan Theatre Club presented The Other Place with Laurie Metcalf in a Tony-nominated role with a similar plot line but no show tunes. This year The Vineyard presented Dot, Colman Domingo’s muscular new play about a matriarch facing—yet again—the harrowing diagnosis of Alzheimer’s, this time set against the cultural backdrop of South Philly.
Manhattan Theatre Club returns this season with The Father, a new play by French novelist and playwright Florian Zeller (translated by Christopher Hampton). At first glance one might question if New York theatergoers are interested in another dramaturgical exploration of a fairly depressing subject. There are two reasons why that answer should be yes.
Zeller’s play, unlike its recent predecessors, has an unnerving way of putting the audience in the mind of its central character André (Frank Langella). The play’s construct, set in a posh Paris apartment, shifts gears as André starts to slowly lose his cognitive dexterity. His reality becomes increasingly foggy through the 90-minute play (performed without intermission). The one constant presence is his adult daughter Anne (Kathryn Erbe), but her life—including boyfriend or husband (we’re not sure) and a potential move to London—unravels from Andre’s perspective as he struggles to excavate and control his own mind.
Zeller’s play is strengthened by Manhattan Theatre Club’s first-rate production. Scott Pask’s set becomes increasingly (and mysteriously) vacant to parallel André’s mind, while lighting design by Donald Holder and original music by Fitz Patton emphasize André’s decline. Director Dough Hughes resists sentimentality by keeping the staging lean and purposeful.
But the second main reason to see The Father is to experience Langella in the title role. At 78 years old, the three-time Tony Award winner delivers a master’s class in character development. Reminding us that we are a myriad of experiences and emotions, he effortlessly vacillates between moments. At times, there is a harsh cruelty as he verbally undermines his daughter’s love. At others, he is a joyful flirt at the arrival of a new home nurse, who reminds him of his other daughter (only eluded to and never seen). And in the play’s final moments, Langella reverts to a haunting, childlike state.
There are approximately five million people in the U.S. with age-related dementia. But whether or not your are personally affected by that statistic, The Father will hit home.
Here’s what the other critics are saying:
“Frank Langella has made a brilliant stage career of playing monumental heroes and villains, from King Lear to Count Dracula. So it makes sense that he would tackle the greatest hero-villain of all, that mythic figure we all call “father.” That, at least, is the subtext of “The Father” as translated from the French by Christopher Hampton, and bowing on Broadway with Langella in the title role. On a more straightforward level, playwright Florian Zeller’s disturbing drama is a highly personal study of a proud old man’s inexorable mental deterioration that is easy to admire, but quite painful to watch.” Variety
“As you may have gathered, ‘The Father’ offers one of the most disorienting experiences in town. Yet, as directed by Doug Hughes, this Manhattan Theater Club production exudes a cool clarity that borders on the clinical. There’s no wallowing in phantasmagoria, with the disembodied faces and melting Dalíesque clocks regularly trucked out in movies to suggest minds running amok.” New York Times
“At its best, Zeller’s writing is crisp, darkly humorous and emits a hushed Pinteresque chill. On the down side, the play is so sterile it sidesteps the mess that comes with mental deterioration. And it sinks from overkill, starting with the name Andre — as in “man.” This could happen to you, people. And then there’s Andre’s constant search for his watch. Time is precious. We get it.” New York Daily News
Manhattan Theatre Club
Samuel J. Friedman Theatre
261 West 47th Street, NYC
Through June 12