The Roundabout Theater has a long association with the plays of August Strindberg; “The Father” was the company’sinaugural production 30 years ago, in considerably less glamorous circumstances than the current outing affords. For this occasion, Frank Langella returns to Broadway in the title role, giving a hair-raising performance as a grounded man driven by doubt into madness. Langella begins the play as an imposing Captain — scientist, atheist and male chauvinist — the picture of starched, smug rectitude. Ninety minutes later, strait-jacketed and stroke-ruined, he’s a supine wreck, the victim of a terrorist household coven ruled by his wife, Laura (Gail Strickland), who will do anything to ensure that their daughter, Bertha (Angela Bettis), will be raised as she, not he, sees fit.
Laura has methodically set out to undermine her husband’s credibility and sanity to retain control over their adolescent daughter’s future. Through correspondence, she has implanted in the minds of their friends the idea that he is mad, a course she also follows with their credulous new doctor (Tom Beckett). For good measure, she has also destroyed his chance at gaining respectability as a scientist, which he hoped would provide liberation from the drudgery of a military life. Finally, she implants the notion that he may not be the father of the child he adores and who adores him; in the production’s most disturbing scene, he literally begins devouring the girl before trying to murder her.
As with “Othello,” our ability to enter the world of “The Father” depends on our willingness to believe that love can so quickly turn to distrust and then murderous rage. To the extent that he makes such a flash-point transition plausible, Langella is persuasive, even amazing. As with his cooler but no less paternalistic Prospero (in a flawed Roundabout production of “The Tempest” six years ago), he offers a riveting central performance in an otherwise forgettable production. Everything about him — buttons, eyes, veins, heart — seems perpetually on the verge of popping with a menacing force. If he has the military bearing of an Othello, Langella also affects the preposterous but compelling bathos of a Lear, particularly in the touching scenes with Bettis (who is more moving as the teenage Bertha than she was in last season’s “Arcadia”).
The script is open to more irony than either Richard Nelson’s colloquial adaptation or Clifford Williams’ somewhat stolid staging allow. A less affected Laura than the one Strickland plays might have helped; Strickland’s consonants are shot out with little bursts of air; “boxes and boxes of books” comes out “poxes and poxes of pooks.” Irene Dailey, on the other hand, is a treasure as Old Margaret, who has raised the Captain since infancy and still has few qualms about betraying him in the service of sisterhood. Ivar Brogger, as Laura’s brother, the Pastor, and Beckett, as the doctor, are all right, in equally ridiculous roles.
John Lee Beatty has provided the very model of a Scandi set, all frozen gray planking and sparse furnishing, and it’s lit less gloomily than one has comes to expect (remember Hedda?), thanks to Kenneth Posner. Martin Pakledinaz’s costumes are just right. Whether by design or incompetence, the echoic ringing of amplified voices throughout — the usually capable John Gromada designed the sound — nearly drove me as mad as the mad playwright.
But, truth to tell, I don’t have a lot of patience for early Strindberg, who was already cracked, if not completely separated from the yolk, in the late 1880 s, when he wrote his influential, so-called naturalistic plays, including “The Father” (1887). In the century since, he has been revered as a father of modern drama, yet those plays have mostly become the forms on which directors hang their own visions, as Ingmar Bergman recently did, memorably, with “Miss Julie.” Shaw — no less Strindberg’s opposite than the Swede’s more proximate Norwegian rival, Ibsen — famously exalted him, though the praise rings somewhat hollow: Declaring that Strindberg portrayed the battle of the sexes in classically tragic terms, Shaw allowed that on such matters, his own view tended more toward the comic. Amen.