The Height of the Storm
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Jonathan Pryce and Eileen Atkins play a couple adjusting to harsh unrealities in Florian Zeller's puzzle play.
Broadway review by Adam Feldman
Even before the evidence piles up—before parts of scenes repeat themselves, and names and places start worming their way into stories where they don’t belong—audiences at The Height of the Storm may feel an eerie sense of déjà vu. Three years ago at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, Manhattan Theatre Club presented Florian Zeller’s The Father: a play about a man named André who has daughters named Anne and Élise, and who is losing his mind to dementia. The Height of the Storm gives us a different André (Jonathan Pryce), also with daughters named Anne (Amanda Drew) and Élise (Lisa O’Hare). This André is a literary lion instead of an engineer, however, and he has a wife: Her name is Madeleine (Eileen Atkins), in a polite nod to Proust, and she might be dead—or perhaps she is not, or maybe André is the dead one. (As he says: “You think people are dead, but it’s not always the case.”) For at least half an hour, Zeller keeps us guessing; as in The Father, confusion is both his subject and his prime dramatic strategy.
“Imagine a dream you never wake up from,” muses André. “It’d be a real nightmare!” The play is skillfully woven with dream logic. Details bleed from one narrative into another; two non-family figures, identified as the Woman (Lucy Cohu) and the Man (James Hillier), have unstable identities. It’s a deliberately frustrating experience, like a jigsaw puzzle in which the pieces fit together but yield no coherent picture.
Translated from the original French by Christopher Hampton and staged with commendable directness by Jonathan Kent, The Height of the Storm might seem merely a clever exercise were it not for its highly distinguished stars. In the flashier role, Pryce deftly navigates André’s slippery landscape of paranoia, confusion, shame, loneliness and anger, while Atkins—like Madeleine—provides staunch, secure, unfussy support. If there is a picture to this puzzle after all, it is the portrait of a marriage that stretches on till death do them part and beyond.
Samuel J. Friedman Theatre (Broadway). By Florian Zeller. Translated by Christopher Hampton. Directed by Jonathan Kent. With Jonathan Pryce, Eileen Atkins. Running time: 1hr 30mins. No intermission.