Review: 'The Father' at the Samuel J. Friedman Theater

Asya Danilova

  • OnStage New York Critic

The Father, written by a French novelist and playwright Florian Zeller is a winner of the Molière Award for the best play in 2014, which is considered the highest theatrical honor in France. After taking the stages of London and Paris by storm, it was brought to New York by the Manhattan Theater Club. Florian Zeller made an 80-year old Andre, suffering from developing dementia, the main character of his story (played by the magnificent Frank Langella). And he gave dementia to the structure of the play itself. 

In the opening scene of The Father, Kathryn Erbe plays his daughter, Anne. In the very next scene Kathleen Borland appears in the apartment as Anne and is devastated by the fact that her own dad doesn’t recognize her. As Andre mixes up his daughter with another woman, he has a hard time figuring out if she is married or single, if she is moving to London or staying with him in Paris, if they live in his apartment or hers.       

The flat with poisonously green walls, designed by Scott Pask, tricks Andre and the audience with pictures and furniture disappearing during the blackouts between the scenes. It starts slowly with smaller things and doesn’t get noticed immediately. Much like the loss of memory, the loss of the interior details happens gradually. The scenes get repeated; the same words are being said multiple times, and sometimes by different actors. 

Photo: Joan Marcus

Photo: Joan Marcus

Andre hangs on in the middle of this spinning time funnel while trying not to get sucked into madness. He frantically obsesses over time, as losing his watch equals losing his mind to him. When he asks his helper or his daughter what time is it, they never say the time of the day. They say things like: “It’s time to take your medication” or “It’s time to get dressed”. The people surrounding Andre gave up hope for him a while ago, yet he is still grasping for the remaining bits of his sanity. We can see that he probably was a very powerful, influential man in his younger years, which makes witnessing his decline even more tragic.      

Frank Langella delivers an incredibly powerful performance, portraying the man losing himself. His frustration brings up anger, fear, and desperation. Though at times he is cheerful, funny and flirty, which triggers bursts of laughter in the audience. This is an uncanny effect considering the subject matter. Langella demonstrates the broad pallet of the emotions of a confused person who yet fights furiously. Unfortunately his strikes are directed at the wrong people. 

Kathryn Erbe, playing Anne, is a little bit one sided. As her wardrobe doesn’t change much until her last scene, her performance holds the same note of uncertainty, tiredness and guilt. Her entire character seems to be made of worrying about her father, and her voice is almost always on the verge of crying. Given the fact that the play is trying to look at the world through Andre’s eyes, the flatness of the other characters is justifiable. However, Anne is very much real and I wish we were given emotional access to her.     

Both Anne and her boyfriend, Pierre (Brian Avers), are mainly characterized by their functions.  Anne’s function is to take care of Andre; Pierre’s function is to get irritated by Andre. They and their doppelgangers are reminiscent of characters in an absurd play. Yet Doug Hughes directs The Father in a very realistic manner. There is only one “dream” monologue delivered by Anne from the proscenium in a kind of a no-space, with dramatic contrast side lighting. Everything else looks scarily realistic and is not covered by the fog of stylization. The structure of the play alone conveys the misplaced reality, so it was a wise decision to keep the visual and audial design minimalistic.        

THE FATHER runs though June 15th, 2016 in Samuel J. Friedman Theater at 261 W 47th Street, New York. More information and tickets here: