×

Broadway Review: ‘The Father’ Starring Frank Langella

With:
Frank Langella, Kathryn Erbe, Brian Avers, Charles Borland, Hannah Cabell, Kathleen McNenny.

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?”

Popular on Variety

Broadway Review: 'The Father' Starring Frank Langella

Samuel J. Friedman Theater; 650 seats; $150 top. Opened April 14, 2016. Reviewed April 7. Running time: ONE HOUR, 30 MIN.

Production: A Manhattan Theater Club presentation, by special arrangement with Theater Royal Bath Productions, of a play in one act by Florian Zeller, as translated by Christopher Hampton.

Creative: Directed by Doug Hughes. Sets, Scott Pask; costumes, Catherine Zuber; lighting, Donald Holder; original music & sound, Fitz Patton; illusion consultant, Jim Steinmeyer; production stage manager, James FitzSimmons.

Cast: Frank Langella, Kathryn Erbe, Brian Avers, Charles Borland, Hannah Cabell, Kathleen McNenny.

More Legit

  • Jonathan Groff

    Listen: Jonathan Groff Knows He's a Spitter

    If you’ve seen “Little Shop of Horrors” — the starry revival headlined by Jonathan Groff in a small Off Broadway theater — you probably noticed that Groff spits a lot when he speaks onstage. He’ll be the first to tell you that he’s been a spitter as long as he can remember, but “Little Shop” [...]

  • Key Largo

    L.A. Theater Review: Andy Garcia in 'Key Largo'

    Would “Casablanca” make a good play? Guess what: It was first produced on stage as “Everybody Comes to Rick’s.” How about “Key Largo,” the black-and-white Bogie-and-Bacall vehicle in which a handful of misfits find themselves trapped in a South Florida hotel while a hurricane rages outside? In fact, the 1948 John Huston film was adapted [...]

  • Sophia Anne Caruso and Alex Brightman'Beetlejuice'

    How 'Beetlejuice: The Musical' Became a Broadway Turnaround Story

    Christopher Kuczewski is what you’d call a Netherling. It’s a reference to the netherworld inhabitants who populate “Beetlejuice: The Musical,” the off-beat adaptation of the 1988 hit film that’s becoming an unlikely Broadway turnaround story. And that designation, which has been given to superfans of the show, goes a long way towards explaining how a [...]

  • Lena Waithe'The Inheritance' Broadway play opening,

    Lena Waithe, Anderson Cooper Attend Broadway Opening of 'The Inheritance'

    “The Inheritance” pulls viewers in many directions — toward pain and hope, trauma and healing. It’s what brought stars like Andy Cohen, Anderson Cooper, Sarah Jessica Parker, Matthew Broderick and Lena Waithe to Broadway on Sunday — a chance to heal, to remember and grieve. Also in attendance for the premiere at the Barrymore Theater [...]

  • Touching the Void review

    West End Review: 'Touching the Void'

    It shouldn’t work. Attempting to make effective theatre out of scaling a mountain, facing disaster thousands of feet up in the freezing cold and enduring a drawn-out facedown with death is surely a preposterous idea. Yet that is exactly what playwright David Grieg and director Tom Morris and his ideally meshed creative team have done. [...]

  • Hangmen review play

    Martin McDonagh’s 'Hangmen' Coming to Broadway in 2020

    Martin McDonagh’s “Hangmen” will debut on Broadway this spring, the latest in a line of West End transfers to the Great White Way this year. The play, which focuses on the second-best executioner in Britain dealing with his government’s decision to abolish his favorite form of doing away with prisoners, will begin performances on Feb. [...]

  • The Inheritance review

    Broadway Review: 'The Inheritance'

    The real hero of “The Inheritance,” Matthew Lopez’s thoughtful, moving and painfully funny play, is E.M. Forster, the celebrated English author of “Howards End,” “A Room with a View,” “A Passage to India,” and “Maurice,” that last a gay-themed novel published after his death in 1970. It’s quite the literary thrill to find the great [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content