The French playwright Florian Zeller made an auspicious Broadway debut a few years back with The Father, which juggled elements of absurdism and naturalism to take us inside the mind of a man apparently struggling with dementia. Part existential domestic drama, part psychological thriller, the play earned Frank Langella his fourth Tony Award.
Zeller’s The Mother, the latest installment in a trilogy that also includes The Son to arrive in New York, also boasts a duly treasured actor in the title role, Isabelle Huppert, who has proven as luminous and affecting in stage performance as she is on screen. And like Father, Mother has been translated by Christopher Hampton, who has done the same honors for playwrights ranging from Ibsen and Chekhov to Zeller’s compatriot Yasmina Reza.
Yet despite predictably bracing performances by a cast that also includes Chris Noth and Justice Smith, under Trip Cullman’s taut direction, Mother never achieves the level of emotional depth or intrigue that Father delivered. A large part of the problem is the fundamental predicament, that of a middle-aged woman alienated from her husband turning to her grown son for affirmation and affection. That this trope dates back to the Greeks doesn’t mean that it can’t still produce thoughtful variations, even in our post-#MeToo era, but Zeller offers neither fresh insights nor especially provocative twists.
Huppert’s character, Anne, is introduced as a compendium of clichés, in fact, hounding her husband, Peter (Noth), about his arriving home late and fretting that their son, Nicolas (Smith) is ignoring her. We soon glean that Anne avails herself of “mother’s little helpers” when under duress, which is, presumably, most of the time. “Have you been drinking?” asks Peter, who will later express concern to Nicolas, with terrific condescension, about Anne’s fragility. Pills also enter the picture, eventually.
Not that Anne is suffering from chemically induced delusions or paranoia. We gather pretty much right away that Peter is hiding something, and it isn’t a birthday present. Noth, an expert interpreter of sly alpha males, brings a gruff, vaguely sinister masculine energy to the play, which Zeller has identified as a “black farce.” It is funny, certainly, to watch Anne in the opening scene as she repeats the same questions to her husband over and over; perhaps she has been drinking, but the scrumptious blend of impishness and spite Huppert brings to her lines suggests that Anne is not, as it will later be suggested, out of her mind.
The purposeful repetition in Mother is not limited to the dialogue. As with Father, one scene will be followed by another that seems to depict the same events from an alternate perspective, or as they might have unfolded under different circumstances. Scenic designer Mark Wendland alerts us to shifts with supertitles, in mostly familiar French (“La Mère,” “Deux”) a full-length mirror is slanted towards the back of his sleek, stark set, affirming the subjectivity and tenuousness of our perceptions.
Cullman also shows a keen sense of contrast in guiding his actors. Smith’s delicately stoic Nicolas is a deft foil to the aggressive machismo of Noth’s Peter, gently enduring (to a point) his mother’s expressions of love and neediness, even when she begins stroking his bare chest. Odessa Young brings a sharper, chillier edge to “The Girl”—Nicolas’s girlfriend, Emily—who in her limited time onstage interacts with the others, Peter in particular, in ways that can, unfortunately, suggest other sexist stereotypes.
Anne, too, might have benefited from more definition—or at least from a suggestion that she harbored passion for, or even a passing interest in, any subject other than the son she clings to, or the husband she wishes dead, more than once. As is, not even Huppert can make her seem fully alive—though the actress has some captivating moments trying to do so.