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The script for The Father gives it an evocative subtitle: A Tragic Farce. There are no slamming doors in Florian Zeller’s 2012 French drama, but there is plenty of mistaken identity. André (Frank Langella), an elderly former engineer, is losing his mind to dementia, which puts an increasing burden on his patient daughter Anne (Kathryn Erbe, underplaying well) and her partner, Pierre (Brian Avers). As often as not, he doesn’t recognize them, and his confusion is literalized on stage: Anne, Pierre and caretaker Laura (the gifted Hannah Cabell) sometimes appear in the form of different actors, identified only as Woman (Kathleen McNenny) and Man (Charles Borland). The play keeps its audience in a continuous state of disorientation, possibly moving around in time, smudging the lines between reality and misperception.
Not even Scott Pask’s tastefully appointed set remains stable. Between scenes, the stage goes dark, and lights flash around the proscenium like synapses. And when a new scene begins, something is missing: small things at first, like books and artwork, but eventually major items of furniture. (Jim Steinmeyer is credited as illusion consultant.) André’s life is disappearing before our eyes.
Such theatrical tricks are central to The Father’s depiction of André’s crumbling state of mind—more than the dialogue (capably translated by Christopher Hampton) or the characters, who are difficult to know very well. But Manhattan Theatre Club’s production, directed with astringent reserve by Doug Hughes, has another special effect in the imposing form of Langella himself. Tall, powerfully built and sonorous as ever, the 78-year-old actor has a commanding presence that contrasts strikingly with André’s growing helplessness; he brings shadows of King Lear (whom he played at BAM in 2014) to this stubborn bourgeois retiree. The Father may not be deep, but its depiction of André is effective and sad. As history repeats and repeats in his brain, invisible doors close slowly around him.—Adam Feldman
Samuel J. Friedman Theatre (Broadway). By Florian Zeller. Directed by Doug Hughes. With Frank Langella, Kathryn Erbe. Running time: 1hr 25mins.
Follow Adam Feldman on Twitter: @FeldmanAdam