By Mary E. Allen
It’s a hit of the season, and those who wildly appreciate this 90-minute one-acter about dementia want to make sure you don’t somehow miss seeing a Frank Langella tour-de-force in The Father. What they do not necessarily tell you is that it is grueling. I watched an audience member, an older gentleman, leave in the middle of a particularly agonizing scene and couldn’t blame him.
That said, minutes into The Father, winner of the 2014 Molière Award for Best Play and a nominee for a 2016 Tony for Best New Play, you know you’re in the presence of exceptional theater, and knowing that is a wonderful feeling, for sure.
My guest for the evening was a person living with, and beating, ovarian cancer. She shared how deeply painful The Father was, given what’s called “chemo brain” in the cancer industry, which can, temporarily, affect one’s memory and one’s ability to speak or remember what one was thinking/speaking about. She said that watching the great Frank Langella—and here the 78-year-old master thespian is great, make no mistake about it—go through similar symptoms, though with much worse difficulties, was almost unbearable.
The Father, produced by Manhattan Theatre Club, is superbly written by Florian Zeller, a young man of 36 years (making his American debut here), and translated from the French to the English by Christopher Hampton, a Portuguese-British playwright twice Zeller’s age. (Hamptom is well known for his play based on the novel Les Liaisons Dangereuses, and he wrote the screenplay for the 1988 film).
Mr. Langella, Three-time Tony Award-winner and Academy Award nominee, owns the stage in The Father, as the five other actors (Kathryn Erbe, Brian Avers, Charles Borland, Hannah Cabell and Kathleen McNenny) provide him with excellent support. In his portrait of Andre, a once-formidable, and now impossible to deal with, father, Langella manages to earn both our compassion and our fear.
We find out, soon enough that Andre is, for all intents and purposes, no longer a father, a businessman, or a patriarch; he is now an embarrassment, a source of anger, an issue to be dealt with.
After a few false notes in the beginning, the towering Langella soars as his character ebbs and flows, ultimately skidding into a second, and final, infancy. He lands, powerless and in the arms of an impersonal, as opposed to a vindictive, Nurse Ratched.
The Father is too real to be absurdist and too maddening, too frightening, too majestic—too spare, even at an hour and a half—to be a “regular” play. Its comparisons with King Lear’s mental plight check out, but one of its major distinctions is that “Lear” has a plot, and “The Father” does not.
Regarding its tone, the elephant in the room, is there something untoward about The Father, one exhausting moment after another, worse than the one before it, with the upshot of draining you with its own form of sensationalism? It’s interesting that the Daily News has called The Father “slick.”
Still, The Father, masterfully directed by Doug Hughes, and with first-rate, ingenious sets by Scott Pask, is hands-down terrific theater. It takes its audience down a particularly narrow rabbit hole and leaves them where it may: grateful for a brilliant experience, surprised or disturbed. Perhaps all three.