Like “The Father,” which won the 2016 Tony Award for Frank Langella in the titanic lead role, “The Mother,” which features a searing performance by Isabelle Huppert, advances French playwright Florian Zeller’s theme of the disintegration of the family unit. (Completing the trilogy, “The Son” just opened in London.)
The stark opening visual communicates all you need to know about the fraught state of the marriage between Mother (Huppert, coiled like a watch spring) and Father (Chris Noth, beaten-down but still handsome). Casually glamorous in a svelte black skirt and clingy top (designed by Anita Yavich), Mother is sitting at the end of a white couch that must be thirty feet long in Mark Wendland’s cool design, reading (or at least pretending to read) a book.
But her mind is far, far away, no doubt on Father, who is constantly drifting in and out of the dark shadows of this empty room. Her rage seems very French here — cool and contained on the surface, but smoldering beneath the skin. She sits, she drinks, she smokes, she broods — and she waits.
When Father finally arrives home to stay a while, he takes a seat at the far, far end of that very long white couch, in an unkind but smart staging choice by savvy director Trip Cullman. The distance on that couch between husband and wife might as well be a chasm between two mountain ranges, so clearly does it define the state of their marriage.
Once she’s certain of his presence in the room, Mother ever so casually (if only metaphorically) skins him alive, piercing him with needle-sharp questions. Clearly, these are the same old questions she’s asked a million times, but Huppert drops a lethal drop of poison into each one. “How was your day?” (arsenic) — “Where were you?” (strychnine) — “Everything all right?” (botulinum) — “Preparing for your seminar?” (tetrodotoxin) — “Is it tomorrow morning you’re leaving?” (dimethylmercury).
At some point, Mother exhausts her venom on Father and directs it against her absent Son (Justice Smith, in an understandably detached performance). He never visits. He rarely calls. He doesn’t come for dinner. “He behaves as if I didn’t exist.” And to make his damning behavior all the worse, he’s got a girlfriend his mother despises.
Once she exhausts her litany of complaints, Mother stands revealed as a bona fide domestic monster. To be fair, she has legitimate complaints as a marginalized person without a purpose. (“I stayed in. Did nothing. Waited.”) But because of Huppert’s unforgiving reading of her acidic lines (all the more poisonous in Christopher Hampton’s unsentimental translation), you can’t even feel sorry for her.
That changes once Mother turns her fury on herself and, increasingly agitated, begins her descent into self-destruction. Huppert throws herself into a full-bodied physical performance that has the unhappy woman acting out all her internalized demons. Thrashing about on the furniture and writhing on the floor, the actress holds nothing back, punishing her own body (clad in a skimpy red dress and black stockings) to physicalize Mother’s rage at her husband, her Oedipal feelings for her son, and finally, her own self-loathing.
Mother’s breakdown is the opposite of the deterioration that Zeller illustrated in “The Father.” Through the cumulative losses of his mental faculties, the pater familias in that play slowly took leave of his own identity. Here, the Mother is undone not so much by her losses as by the accumulation of knowledge and flashes of insight that she acquires — into her husband’s betrayals, her son’s withdrawal and eventually, into her own unraveling mind.
In the end, this turns out to be an upsetting play rather than an engaging one, and if it weren’t for Huppert’s mesmerizing performance, it might send you out of the theater and screaming into the night.