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'The Father' - A Journey Into an Aging, Failing Mind

Frank Langella and Kathryn Erbe in The Father
(©Joan Marcus)

The onslaughts of aging and their cross-generational effects have become ripe fodder for drama this season. In The Humans, an elderly woman's frailty and dementia are just part of a mix of troubles facing a clan as they attempt to celebrate a happy Thanksigiving. In the recently closed Dot, a family strove to cope with their mother's early-onset Alzheimers. In both plays, theatergoers witnessed primarily the elder person's symptoms and never had the opportunity to journey into their minds.

With The Father, which opened last night in a Manhattan Theatre Club production at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre on Broadway, playwright Florian Zeller takes audiences into the world of a man who is battling the breakdown of his memory. It's a scary, fractured ride, and also one that, despite two first-rate performances, becomes somewhat wearisome.

Set in a Paris apartment (a handsome and exceedingly mutable scenic design from Scott Pask), The Father introduces André (Frank Langella) during a painful encounter with his adult daughter Anne (Kathry Erbe). She's angry because his sharp-tongued fits of anger have just resulted in another home-care attendant quitting. As she's about to move to London to be with a new boyfriend, she needs to know that he will have someone to look after him, and even when he believes that his watch has gone missing, he can't necessarily accuse his caregivers of stealing.

After a burst of lights flared at the theatergoers (the least subtle aspect of Donald Holder's otherwise gently atmospheric design), audiences encounter André as he surprises a "stranger" in the flat. The man claims to be Anne's husband, Pierre, and he has no inkling that his wife might be heading toward London to be with another man. Not surprisingly, André finds the disconnect between the two encounters baffling and troubling. So, too, do audiences.

And so this play, dubbed a "A Tragic Farce" by its author and translated by Christopher Hampton with an ear toward blunt archness, goes; each scene contains elements that are familiar and others that contradict or only tangentially gibe with facts and events that have preceded.

Directed with gentle intensity by Doug Hughes, The Father initially intrigues, but as it moves forward, Zeller's strategy to disorient while also evincing André's mental decline becomes increasingly gimmicky. With each burst of lights and subtle—and not-so-subtle—changes in the layout of the apartment, the play becomes akin to one of those games where a viewer is asked to look at two pictures and determine what has changed from one to the other.

Throughout, though, Langella and Erbe offer commanding and moving performances as father and daughter weathering the man's illness. It's painful to watch as Langella's formidable portrayal of André become increasingly childlike and frustrated by the swirl of splintered impressions of his life that he has.

In her portrayal of Anne, Erbe balances anger and hurt with compassion and affection to marvelous effect, and it becomes particularly chilling to watch how this woman rebounds with each stinging barb that André makes about his disdain for his daughter.

Fine performances come, too, from Brian Avers, Charles Borland, Hannah Cabell, and Kathleen McNenny, who play various men and women who filter through father and daughter's worlds and memories.

Both Baby Boomers and the first tier of Gen Xers are beginning to cope with the issues and events that are revealed in The Father, and there's an indubitable pull to the material and the performances, but one can't help but wish that it had been offered up in a less distancing manner.

---- Andy Propst

The Father plays at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre (261 West 47th Street). For more information and tickets, visit: manhattantheatreclub.com.