Theater archives

Vanishing Act: ‘The Father’ Is a Dementia Drama (Too) Narrowly Imagined


The question at the heart of Florian Zeller’s The Father is simple. Can a play approximate the disorientations of senility? In thrilling moments it does, with Frank Langella as André, a
retiree suffering from dementia, going
big as he goes mad. But Zeller’s limited drama ends up too airless to function.

When we first see Scott Pask’s sumptuous set, we note its naturalism: teal paneling, bookcases, a chair. Reality! We’d know it anywhere. But at every blackout, furniture vanishes; actors change roles; facts
alter. Such is life as experienced by André, and the audience’s discombobulation mirrors his.

Line by line, the play narrows: Scenes mainly consist of André’s daughter, Anne (Kathryn Erbe), and her boyfriend, Pierre (Brian Avers), repeating themselves. Perhaps Zeller wants us to be as frustrated with these idiots as André is, but the sheer banality of the language, translated from the French by Christopher Hampton, galls. (Anne: “What does make sense??” Pierre: “Being happy. Being together. Being alive.”) Director Doug Hughes doesn’t make a cohesive world for the play, so Erbe is stonily emphatic while Avers vamps like a Bond villain. Langella is thus the only human figure — and alone, he’s a tornado with nothing to damage. He storms, making his molded
Roman profile twist in anger then melt into despair, and for a short while, we’re fascinated by our own perplexity. The final hour, though — oy. Perhaps that’s best forgotten.

The Father
Directed by Doug Hughes
Samuel J. Friedman Theatre
261 West 47th Street
Through June 12