This should be required viewing for all human beings. In a season when The Humans laudably included a frank portrayal of a family member with Alzheimer’s, here playwright Florian Zeller ingeniously puts us in the position of that family member. Through Frank Langella’s brave, masterful performance, we experience the dislocation, indignity, and sense of abandonment, ultimately by reality itself, that comes with the onset of this all too common disease in our era of extended years.
Langella, himself a hearty 78 with a sonorous voice and great reserves of dignity, is here at that awkward point when one’s grown children feel help is needed, that Dad can’t be left alone. He feels nothing of the kind, only that he be left in peace to his own affairs. He can walk and do for himself. But where’s that wristwatch? It’s entirely possible that the helper stole it. He can’t abide these strangers imposing on his privacy. And the little rabbit holes in his world multiply from there.
It seemingly all takes place in the same well-appointed flat in Paris. Or does it? Time passes in indistinct leaps, punctuated by searing strobe-light flashes like migraine jolts. After each, somehow things have changed. In what seems like a moment, furniture arrangements are noticeably off. Explanations of people’s lives have altered. The other cast members portraying daughter, daughter’s boyfriend, and caretakers are seemingly deliberately flattened so that even radical changes among them are plausibly hard to perceive, like a sneaky trick. The male figures are just resentful enough in their helpfulness to keep the father off balance in his ability to trust what he’s told. The maddening dislocations chip away and chip away, until Langella as the father has only his bare human core to give us.
This is realism of an entirely different kind. We see the world as the playwright imagines we construct it when memory increasingly fails. The will to control and make sense persists even as the facts of the presented world become impossible to reconcile. I recall my own mother, stuck in that terrible eternal now, trying to solve the puzzle of her circumstances. She knew who I was but not much more. “Is what you’re telling me the truth, or is this a dream?” she asked me as earnestly as a tourist asking for directions on the subway. Eventually she could only cry for her mother or take solace in sleep. Apparently, Zeller knows this all too well.
Langella’s unforgettable performance is one of the best I’ve ever witnessed. He brings us inside his point of view so that we see not a condition or a disease, but what is now increasingly part of the human condition.
- By Florian Zeller, Translated by Christopher Hampton
- Directed by Doug Hughes
- Cast includes Frank Langella, Kathryn Erbe, Brian Avers, Charles Borland, Hannah Cabell, Kahleen McNenny
- Manhattan Theatre Club at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, Broadway, New York
- Until 12 June 2016
- Review by Paul Meltzer
- 18 April 2016