The Father, a deliberately disorienting new play starring Frank Langella, is the second work that I’ve seen on a New York stage in the last two months that focuses on a character struggling with dementia, and the fifth that features such a character. But it uniquely tells the story from the sufferer’s perspective.
In the play by Florian Zeller (translated from the French by Christopher Hampton), Langella portrays Andre, an elegant Parisian gentleman who we first see in an argument with his daughter Anne (Kathryn Erbe.) She is exasperated that her father has chased away the third caretaker she has hired for him.
“She told me you threatened her, physically,” Anne says.
“The woman is raving mad, Anne,” he replies, denying any such encounter, and accusing the woman of having stolen his watch.
Anne tells Andre that he is going to have to agree to a live-in caretaker, because he can’t take care of himself, and she’s met a man, Pierre, and she’s about to move in with him in London. “If you refuse to have a helper, I’m going to have to…”
In the second scene, Andre is alone searching for his lawyer’s number, presumably to protect himself from his daughter’s apparent threat, when a man appears (Charles Borland)
“What are you doing here?” Andre asks, alarmed.
“I live here.” He tells Andre he’s Pierre and has been Anne’s husband for ten years. Then he telephones Anne: “your father isn’t feeling very well. I think he’d like to see you.” When Anne arrives, carrying a grocery bag full of chicken, she’s portrayed by a different actress (Kathleen McNenny), which confuses Andre – and the audience. Pierre goes off to the kitchen to cook a chicken dinner, but when Andre starts to talk to Anne about her husband, she tells him she has no husband, she’s not married, and that there’s no man in the apartment.
“A minute ago, you were holding a chicken, were you not? A chicken. A CHICKEN!”
“What chicken? What are you talking about, Dad?”
And so it goes, for a total of 15 short scenes over 90 intermission-less minutes, a pile-up of confusions that are alternately comic and disturbing; sometimes simultaneously comic and disturbing. One can see why Zeller calls his play a “tragic farce.”
The Father cleverly employs the kind of effect perfected by absurdist playwrights from Albee to Ionesco, but this time for a specific, accessible purpose – to bring us into the mind of a man losing his faculties. We are clued in early that this is what is going on, and while the proceedings remain confusing, we sense a progressive deterioration. This is helped by the stagecraft of the production, directed by Doug Hughes: Scott Pask’s gracefully appointed set is slowly, at first imperceptibly, emptied of its contents. Less felicitous are the blindingly bright bulbs, like those that flash around a marquee, that assault our eyes in-between each scene, perhaps a metaphor for zapped synapses.
Still, for all the freshness of the conceit and the cleverness of the construction, our interest flags whenever Andre is not on the stage. This is for several reasons: The scenes without Andre undermine the central idea that The Father is presented from Andre’s perspective; we are clearly not in his head during those times when Anne is talking to Pierre (or somebody named Antoine or whoever – the audience is just as confused about her partner as Andre is, even when Andre’s not there.) These scenes hardly seem worth the sacrifice of a fully realized conception; they register largely as a missed opportunity to glimpse the stresses and heartache of caring for someone with dementia. Though competently portrayed by five cast members, the characters seem little more than devices; when they appear on stage without Andre, it occasionally even feels as if it is mostly to allow time for Langella to change costumes.
Kenneth Cranham won an Olivier Award as best actor earlier this month for portraying Andre in the London production of The Father. It’s a splendid role, and it seems tailor-made for Frank Langella, who made his Broadway debut 50 years ago, and has portrayed 17 roles on the Great White Way before this one, including Dracula and Sherlock Holmes and Richard Nixon and Sir Thomas More. Now 78 years old, Langella has made a specialty of late of portraying old men losing power, from the 2012 film Robot & Frank to the current FX TV series “The Americans” to King Lear at BAM in 2014.
As in his Lear, Langella dominates, a once-commanding presence (“I was scared of him when I was little,” Anne says to Pierre at one point. “He had so much authority.”) He is still a little scary — imperial, and not very kind; he tells Anne to her face that he loves her sister better (a sister that long ago died in an accident, as we soon realize, although Andre has clearly forgotten that she’s no longer alive.) That he is so blunt may be the effect of his dementia, although we sense that, even when he had all his faculties, he didn’t spare anybody’s feelings. One moment, he is flirting, and charming and even tap-dancing for his new caretaker Laura (Hannah Cabell), who gives out a delighted giggle. The next moment, he goes in for the kill, remarking on her “unbearable habit of laughing inanely.”
Yet, there is no character on Broadway now with whom we are made to feel more literal empathy. Langella (and Zeller) makes us share in his concrete losses. He keeps on losing his watch; but even when he finds it, he has lost track of time.
In my review of King Lear, I observed something about Langella that is even more true of him in The Father. He is so effective in playing an old man who loses all his power that you never doubt his power as a performer, and you come away marveling at how well he can impersonate somebody so old.
The Father is on stage at MTC’s Samuel J Friedman Theater (261 W. 47th Street, New York, NY 10036, east of Eighth Avenue) through June 12, 2016
The Father. Written by Florian Zeller, Translation by Christopher Hampton; Directed by Doug Hughes. Featuring Frank Langella, Kathryn Erbe, Brian Avers, Charles Borland, Hannah Cabell and Kathleen McNenny. Sets by Scott Pask; costumes by Catherine Zuber; lighting by Donald Holder; music and sound by Fitz Patton; illusion consultant, Jim Steinmeyer; production stage manager, James FitzSimmons . Reviewed by Jonathan Mandell.