The trouble with dramas built on fractured truth is that the fracturing must be compelling enough, and logical enough, and gradual enough for the audience to ride along with it. One false move or two, alas, and you stray off track. Sometimes way off track. And once you have lost the audience, it’s difficult to recover.
This brings us, disappointingly, to Florian Zeller’s The Mother (La Mère), now at the Atlantic. Paris playwright Zeller is the author of The Father (Le Père), a similarly themed piece that brightened Broadway in 2016 with Frank Langella. The followup, naturally enough, is called The Son (Le Fils); it opened in London last month. On tap: the acclaimed The Height of the Storm, which is hopping from the West End to Broadway courtesy of Manhattan Theater Club in September, starring Eileen Atkins and Jonathan Pryce.
Which is to say, Zeller is a 30-something playwright to be reckoned with. Given what we know of his work, The Mother, starring Isabelle Huppert, sounded intriguing, to say the least. It is most surprising to find that it simply doesn’t work, at least not here.
Anne (Huppert) is a French mother of two grown and estranged children, living somewhere in America—a two-hour train ride from Buffalo, we’re told—with her husband Peter (Chris Noth). That much is clear. It is also clear, from the spare but striking scenery by Mark Wendland (of Next to Normal), that something is up; beneath the stage-wide, fourteen-seater white couch we glimpse numerous pill bottles (empty, presumably) in disarray.
Peter is off to a seminar in Buffalo, or not; he is leaving his wife to have an affair, or not. What is clear is that he is at the end of his rope, cajoling Anne with numerous untruths—or what she perceives to be untruths. The kids never ever visit (and no wonder!) until Nicolas (Justice Smith) turns up with his shirt unbuttoned. He is followed by Emily (Odessa Young), who is apparently his live-in girl but at other times wears a trenchcoat and might be mistaken for the otherwise unseen daughter of the family or a nurse with red lipstick. While we don’t want to give anything away, there is a fiery red dress which plays a prominent role in the proceedings. Two red dresses, actually, which are purposely too small to cover what they ought to cover. At least, in scenes between mother and son.
Note: the stage description on the first page of the script suggests “a growing tension” and “a strange atmosphere.” That describes the play, all right.
Now, it is difficult to explain what has gone awry. The play—the first of Zeller’s trilogy—apparently has been successful in Paris (2010) and London (2015). As with the other two (and The Height of the Storm), it has been translated into English by the remarkably accomplished Christopher Hampton (of The Philanthropist and the RSC’s Les Liaisons Dangereuses). One is tempted to say that The Mother must have lost something vital in the translation, but Hampton is skillful and careful enough to make this seem unlikely. Perhaps the issue is the production, directed by Trip Cullman of Choir Boy and Significant Other; but one doesn’t see what more he could have done with this play, in this form.
Cinema star Huppert is enough of a raison d’être to justify the production. She is impressive, yes, but under the circumstances strays over the top to the extent that you might have trouble believing her character, her performance, and her play. Noth is sturdy enough as the husband, but the script gives him so many conflicting cues that it’s hard for us, and for him, to fathom just who the character is. Yes, Anne clearly doesn’t see or understand who he is and what he’s doing; but that doesn’t help the audience.
Smith comes off well as the son, perhaps because his role allows him to be less over-the-top than the rest. Young, who made a strong impression as one of the young radicals in Steven Levenson’s (and director Cullman’s) Days of Rage, is fine up to a point; but when the playwright gives you outrageous motivations, outrageous dialogue, outrageous heels, and that red dress, what’s a young actress to do but the best she can?
To return to the above-mentioned fracturing, this is indeed a play in which reality is constantly fractured. It is also one of those plays which starts each scene twice, presenting—yes—altered reality. (A slide on the scrim tells us that this is scene one, two or three, en française; and then repeats the numbering when the scene restarts.) When the actors come out for bows after playing the fourth scene only once, you might well feel like you’ve had a reprieve. But we expect that Zeller will be earning our praise once more in the fall, uptown at the Friedman.
The Mother opened March 11, 2019, at the Linda Gross Theater and runs through April 13. Tickets and information: atlantictheater.org