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BWW Review: Frank Langella Gives a Commanding Turn in Florian Zeller's THE FATHER

Manhattan Theatre Club's Samuel J. Friedman Theatre is firmly establishing itself as the place to go to see some of America's best stage actors playing characters with unreliable perceptions of reality.

Frank Langella and Kathryn Erbe
(Photo: Joan Marcus)

A few years ago we had Laurie Metcalf's remarkable performance in Sharr White's THE OTHER PLACE, just recently there was Linda Lavin in Richard Greenberg's OUR MOTHER'S BRIEF AFFAIR and now Frank Langella is in full command of the house playing a fellow losing command of his memory in French playwright Florian Zeller's Moliere Award winning The Father.

As he's done a trio of times for another noted contemporary French playwright, Yasmina Reza, Christopher Hampton provides the English translation, although there's just enough non-American English to serve as a reminder that the characters are of a somewhat different culture, including a repeated expression that might seem a bit bizarre to the unfamiliar.

As 80-year-old Andre, a retired engineer (Or was he a tap dancer?), Langella, appears as an elegant and soft-spoken gent living in a cozy and stylish flat belonging to his daughter, Anne (Kathryn Erbe). Or maybe it's his place? In the first scene, the frustrated Anne is trying to remain patient listening to her father's insistence that his latest caretaker stole his watch. Unable to watch over Andre herself, Anne is trying to transition him into a live-in facility. At one point of the play, maybe she has.

Charles Borland and Frank Langella
(Photo: Joan Marcus)

Rather than telling a story with a conventional plot, Zeller presents a series of scenes that represent Andre's inconsistent perception of his surroundings. Scott Pask's unit set stays put, but exactly where each scene takes place is questionable. Furnishings, books, a potted plant come and go. There are breaks between each scene, presumably to make these adjustments to the set pieces, where lighting designer Donald Holder presents displays that seem to represent Andre's crossed mental signals.

The details of his relationship with Anne change and even the man in his daughter's life, maybe her husband or maybe her boyfriend, is played by two different actors (Brian Avers and Charles Borland). A new caretaker (Hannah Cabell) and a nurse (Kathleen McNenny) also make appearances.

If it seems confusing to an audience member, well, that's the point. Welcome to the mind of Andre.

Under Doug Hughes' direction, Langella makes fluid transitions from charmingly self-assured to nervously befuddled to positively terrified. The 90-minute piece serves better as an actor's showcase than a satisfying play, and the star subtly and believably builds to a shuddering climax. Erbe is rock solid as a woman trying to stay in control of an impossible situation. One would expect her to be the next to start losing her mind.



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From This Author Michael Dale