Frank Langella has made a brilliant stage career of playing monumental heroes and villains, from King Lear to Count Dracula. So it makes sense that he would tackle the greatest hero-villain of all, that mythic figure we all call “father.” That, at least, is the subtext of “The Father” as translated from the French by Christopher Hampton, and bowing on Broadway with Langella in the title role. On a more straightforward level, playwright Florian Zeller’s disturbing drama is a highly personal study of a proud old man’s inexorable mental deterioration that is easy to admire, but quite painful to watch.
In this Manhattan Theater Club production, Scott Pask’s handsome set of a stylishly furnished flat in Paris provides numerous visual cues for the gradual but relentless losses experienced by Andre (Langella) when he begins to slide into dementia. Each time the lights come up from a blackout between scenes, it’s obvious that something precious has been lost: a few books from the elegant bookcase that dominates the living room … the charming still life that hung above a comfortable reading chair … the reading chair itself. The disappearance of each physical object — all those touchstones that define our world — signals some memory or mental process vanishing forever from Andre’s life.
There’s no real drama to the basic structure of the play, just the ruthless forward movement of one man’s inevitable fate unfolding. To say the play is hard to take is a cruel understatement. Given the demographic of MTC’s subscribers, and indeed the demographic of most Broadway playgoers, there should be a nurse stationed in the lobby to revive the more sensitive patrons in the audience.
Langella does a superb job of communicating the conflicted feelings of a man who can’t believe — and won’t accept — the changes in his life. His darting eyes and clenched fists reflect the confusion, the fear, the denial and, on one or two dramatic occasions when his voice drops into its regal lower register, the towering rage. Misplacing his watch is cause for alarm. Failing to recognize his caregiver is cause for a violent meltdown. Hannah Cabell is especially good as the only one of these infinitely patient women who escapes his wrath because he finds her charming — and even tries to charm her in return, by executing a little tap dance.
Andre’s rage is directed mainly at his poor sainted daughter, Anne, played by Kathryn Erbe with a display of grief that reflects tenderness as well as weariness. It’s still frustrating, not to say annoying, to watch her stubbornly persist in trying to reason with someone who is clearly beyond rational thought. But Erbe’s treatment of Anne shows a degree of grace. “I remember what kind of man he was,” she says, explaining in a single sentence why she puts up with his unkindness.
In fairness to poor Anne, her father is positively evil to her. No tap dance for Anne, just bursts of criticism and blasts of paranoia. But she also deserves censure for asking questions like “Do you understand?” and “Don’t you remember?” and “Is everything all right?” of someone who doesn’t understand what’s happening, can’t remember a thing, and for whom nothing can ever be “all right.”
Aside from letting Donald Holder get away with shining high-beam lights at the audience during blackouts, director Doug Hughes handles the material with sensitivity. Taking Andre’s distorted perceptions of reality as his own, Hughes takes care to make Anne’s husbands and boyfriends seem as interchangeable as they are in her father’s eyes, and to make the parade of constantly changing caregivers as disorienting as they must be to Andre.
Langella’s finest moment, in fact, is a harrowing one when Andre finally admits that he knows nothing, remembers nothing, and has no idea how he got to this dark place. “What about me?” he asks of no one. “Who exactly am I?”