The same playwright who gave us The Father with a demented Frank Langella and The Mother with a depressed and possibly deranged Isabelle Huppert now offers us…dead Jonathan Pryce and Eileen Atkins? Or maybe just one of them is dead? Or maybe neither?
“You think people are dead, but it’s not always the case,” Andre (Pryce) says at one point – the playwright’s tease.
Maybe we’re the ones who are dead – or wish we were by the end of The Height of The Storm.
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All three plays by Florian Zeller, all translated from the original French by Christopher Hampton, aim to disorient the audience. In “The Father,” one could imagine the deliberate disorientation was meant to help us see from the inside what it is like to have dementia, as Langella’s character Andre deteriorates from scene to scene. (All of Zeller’s plays have men named Andre and/or women named Anne for some reason, although they are not meant to be the same people from play to play.)
In one scene in that play, Andre’s daughter Anne had a husband; in the next scene, when Andre asked about her husband, she said what are you talking about, I’m not married. The set was slowly, at first imperceptibly, emptied of its furniture – an obvious but effective metaphor for Andre’s losses. There were blindingly bright lights in-between each scene, perhaps a metaphor for zapped synapses.
There is also an Anne in The Height of the Storm (Amanda Drew), and she, too, is the daughter of Andre. This Anne is the first to speak in the play, reminiscing about her childhood home, receiving yet more flowers, and talking about arranging her father’s diaries. These are clues that Andre has just died. But he’s standing there staring out the window. So maybe it’s her mother Madeleine who has just died, and Anne has arrived to attend the funeral and then look after her widowed father.
But then her mother Madeleine (Atkins) arrives at the house along with her sister Elise (Lisa O’Hare), so maybe it IS her father who has died, and she is just imagining him? Or he’s a ghost? Or is Anne imagining her mother, who has just died?
The clues shift, the twists twist back, uncertainty reigns. Maybe one or the other is a ghost. Maybe the scenes shift back and forth in time. Maybe there are scenes of alternative realities – the same scene repeated as if Andre had recently died, and as if Andre were still alive but failing. Is this all in Andre’s head? Is it all in Madeleine’s? Two more characters are added to the mix – a man and a woman. Is the woman (Lucy Cohu) Andre’s childhood friend whom Andre’s daughter happened to run into, or a woman Anne has invited to the house to talk about how great her brother’s nursing home is, in hopes of luring Andre there?
By the end of the 80 minute play, I was almost ready to commit to the play being largely in Andre’s head (although maybe a little bit in Anne’s) and that Madeleine has recently died. But what is clearest about The Height of the Storm is that it is deliberately unclear; the playwright has created a puzzle that may not be solvable, for no discernible reason.
Like the playwright, the character Andre is (or was?) a man of letters. At one point, Anne explains that she’s putting together Andre’s papers at the request of his editor. “They think it’s a good way to get into his work, to understand it,” Anne says.
Andre pipes up: “There’s nothing to understand. People who try to understand things are morons.”
This is another tease, and I suspect the key clue to the playwright’s approach. Zeller seems less interested in insight, and more in puzzles and teases. In his previous plays, we could at least pretend that we were gaining insight into the confused mind of an individual character. It’s more difficult to do that in The Height of the Storm – we can’t even figure out whose confused mind it is we’re exploring, other than the playwright’s.
As with the New York productions of The Father and The Mother, the Broadway production of The Height of the Storm is staged professionally by director Jonathan Kent, with a solid, detailed set and realistic costumes by Anthony Ward, as well as dramatic lighting by Hugh Vanstone. Jonathan Pryce, CBE (Game of Thrones, Miss Saigon) and Dame Eileen Atkins (The Crown,Doubt) are both British actors of great renown, and they offer memorable moments of emotional power and clarity — when Madeleine takes prim offense at her daughter, for example; and when Andre explodes in anxiety and confusion. But neither their performances nor the production as a whole were enough compensation for sitting through Zeller’s trickster writing, which feels progressively less like a sensibility and more like a shtick.
The Height of the Storm is on stage at the Samuel J. Friedman Theater, 261 W. 47th St., New York, N.Y. 10036 through November 24, 2019.
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