The Father review – Frank Langella devastates in study of dementia

With elements of a thriller and absurdist comedy, the play takes us into the experience of a man losing his grip though some very English slang rankles

Andr (Frank Langella), a former engineer, lives in a luxurious apartment in Paris, furnished with mementoes of his work and travels. Its an urbane, elegant space, but Andr no longer feels comfortable here. His watch disappears and reappears. His elder daughter, Anne (Kathryn Erbe), is around too often or not often enough. Who is the man she brings with her? Her husband? Her lover? And why does his appearance keep changing?

Florian Zellers The Father, produced by Manhattan Theatre Club, has aspects of both a thriller and an absurdist comedy, and something more poignant than either. Zeller himself describes it as a tragic farce. It is clearly a play about dementia, though that word is never spoken, nor are any of its cognates. Instead the play, now under the confident direction of Doug Hughes, takes us inside Andrs experience and asks us to confront his shifting sense of reality without recourse to any diagnosis. (There are a couple of scenes without Andr, but these seem like missteps.)

The set, lighting and even the costuming conspire nicely to suggest Andrs increasingly slippery sense of place and self. Langella, who has terrific force, but doesnt always seem to pay much attention to the actors around him, responds to this dislocation with petulance, confusion, cruelty and anger, much of it directed at women the long-suffering Anne and the home health aides who come to care for him. He begins the play suavely enough, dressed in elegant casualwear, but soon devolves into a man whining that he wont change out of his nightclothes: Ill only have to put my pajamas back on tonight, wont I? Its a deterioration Langella clearly relishes.

With the exception of a few unnecessary soliloquies, the dialogue is often powerful in its simplicity and Zeller effectively communicates a sense of existential horror lurking just below everyday chatter. Unfortunately, the translation, by Christopher Hampton, sounds more London-ish than Parisian, particularly in its slang, with phrases like stick them in my gob and getting on everybodys tits bound to rankle American ears.

Parts of the play can feel somewhat too pat, as though Zeller is amusing himself in finding out how many ways he can alter reality using the familiar mechanisms of the stage an audiences trust of exposition, the faith in representational setting, the tendency to identify a particular character with a single actor. But he dismisses most of this cleverness in an ending that is both sentimental and searing and will probably devastate anyone who has seen a close friend or relative suffer from dementia. The final scene is a terrible and tragic reversion, in which a man of articulacy and power is reduced to a kind of infantilism, left with with no language but a cry.

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