Susan Granger’s review of “The Father” (MTC’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre: May, 2016)
Frank Langella weaves a tantalizing theatrical tapestry as Andre, an 80 year-old man who is declining into the debilitating dementia, rapidly losing cognitive function.
As the play begins, Andre’s exasperated daughter Anne (Kathryn Erbe) is explaining to him that she needs to find a new “helper,” since the previous one quit after he physically threatened her with a curtain rod and called her “a little bitch.”
Not surprisingly, Andre denies this but then dismisses it, saying he’s perfectly capable of caring for himself. Which, obviously, he isn’t since – in the next scene – he doesn’t recognize her. Nor does the audience, actually, since the character of Anne is played by another actress.
While that’s eventually explained, Andre’s misperceptions continue. Is Anne married to Pierre, or is she preparing to go to London to live with a new lover?
Andre’s confusion continues as a strange man slaps him across the face, his watch gets stolen, and the elegant furniture he’s accustomed to disappears, replaced by a hospital bed.
Expressing the terror that is growing within his consciousness, Langella is a consummate actor, whether he’s oozing charm or claiming that he once was an engineer – or, perhaps, a clown – or tap dancer. His original irritation, manifesting itself in arrogance, becomes a pathetic cry of despair as he descends into helpless dependency.
French playwright Florian Zeller’s work has been translated by Christopher Hampton, directed by Doug Hughes, who stages 15 short scenes, punctuated by blinding flashes of light that seem indicate Andre’s cerebral synapses. Scenic designer Scott Pask and lighting expert Donald Holder have created a stunning Paris apartment, augmented by music/sound by Fitz Patton and Catherine Zuber’s costumes.
But what exactly is the audience experiencing?
Is it “a tragic farce,” which is what it was dubbed when it opened in Paris in 2012? Tragic, yes, but I found nothing farcical about Andre’s dilemma.
I believe that Florian Zeller is depicting the various stages of the growing plague of Alzheimer’s, an irreversible, progressive brain disorder that has affected and will touch most of us during our lifetime. Estimates vary, but experts suggest that more than five million Americans may have Alzheimer’s.