BWW Interview: Charles Borland Pulls No Punches in THE FATHER

There's a tense moment in The Father when Charles Borland, as Man, slaps André, a man in the grip of dementia. "One time a woman let out a sound like she was gut punched," Borland said. "It was such an extreme reaction. I felt sorry for her because I had to slap him two more times."

It's a brutal scene in a devastatingly honest portrayal of the decline of André (Frank Langella), through his own eyes and ears. The play, by Florian Zeller, pits André against his own treacherous memory as he fails to recognize those closest to him. His daughter Anne (Kathryn Erbe) tries to ease her father's transition as his mental acuity worsens and an assisted living facility seems the inevitable next step. It's not a move André wants to make. Borland's Man blurs into different characters in André's eyes as his illness grasps tighter.

Zeller's play is Pinter-esque, said Borland, especially when it comes to his character. "The writing is very sparse and specific, and a lot of what I say is not said verbally, so he's able to communicate a lot by choosing not to say a lot of things. It's all in the precision and timing and that makes it a very unique way to play my character," he said. "I don't have a lot of room to luxuriate in a lot of naturalism and behavior."

Langella gives the play a fresh edge nightly. "Working with Frank is not a challenge; it's a blast- just playing with someone onstage of his caliber," Borland said. "You have to be plugged in always and he changes things every night.

"He makes it fun. Some of his changes are not necessarily on purpose but his character literally says constant non-sequiturs so at times he'll lose track of what's happening or a specific line will change. You have to be on top of it in terms of following him," Borland said. "He might slightly change the blocking and I have to do something around his action. Some actors are more comfortable locking in their performance and not changing it, but he doesn't do that."

The story's message is always sympathetic to André's caregivers, who grow increasingly frustrated with André's rapid decline. "It's really the first play that's told from the perspective of the sufferer," Borland said. "It speaks to both sides, but this is a unique take on a subject that usually you see what they're going through but not the point of view of the victim."

It's not an easy play to watch, he said. "We're tasking the audience with keeping up with what's happening in André's head and at the same time it's Anne's story. It's the story of how she has to navigate her own life," he said of André's daughter. André confuses Man with other characters throughout the play until the audience isn't even sure who he is. "The man obviously confuses André and at the end of the play we see that my character could be an orderly or a doctor or just someone involved in the facility he lives in," Borland said.

"I think the purpose of my character is to highlight what Andre is going through and how he conflates people, events and time. His memory is shattering in shards. It's an extremely unusual role. To be perfectly honest it's one of the rare times I put myself in the hands of the director"-Doug Hughes-"and even Frank to a certain extent," he said.

"It was very hard for me to get a bead on this character because you don't really get to know this person as a person. I wanted to avoid playing any sort of mood or behavior, which you could do if you're not careful," Borland added. "I trusted Doug to shape me and steer me in the right direction. The simplicity of my character means he's not overly naturalistic, but not too stiff either. The challenge is to find the right sort of balance. I wasn't given a lot of keys to the character," Borland said with a laugh.

The play is heart-breaking but also illuminating "I fell in love with the play because I thought it was so beautiful." Borland said. "It's also funny and original, and I think anybody can tap into the subject matter. All ages can relate and I'm sure it's particularly impactful for people who are either older and for people who have direct experience with dementia and are shattered by it."

The slapping scene was especially challenging, he said, because it was technically deconstructed before a hand was raised. "There's no pulling back, and the more brutal the better, Frank said, without obviously hurting him. He trusted I could pull it off. I had to get my hand as close to the fleshy part of the jaw as possible," he said. "Not the ear. It was difficult in the beginning because it's not a natural thing to do. I say the line, look at his cheek and eyeball and just go ahead and smack him," he added. "Not too low, not too high." Then twice more.

Borland, in preparation, watched documentaries on Alzheimer's and visited a nursing home. "It's a real eye-opener about the care givers," he said. "They don't get a chance to take a break, it's relentless and devastating. I didn't quite understand how much the family suffers too," he said. "If audiences take away anything, it should be more understanding if families choose assisted living for loved ones," Borland said. For those with dementia, "It can be worse to be home."

THE FATHER is playing at Manhattan Theatre Club at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 West 47th Street.

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