One of Zeller’s major themes is obsession in its various forms. In The Father, André who is moving into dementia has a paranoid obsession that people are lying to him. In his first novel, Absolute Snow (2002), the unnamed narrator has an obsession with getting revenge on an ex-girlfriend who has left him six months before. In his 2004 novel, The Fascination of Evil, winner of the Prix Interallié, Martin, a Swiss, novelist, who has gone to Cairo on a book junket, has an obsession with having sex with an Islamic woman just as he read about in Flaubert’s memoirs. The Mother follows in this vein: Anne’s love for her son Nicolas is both suffocating him and slowly driving her crazy.
When the audience enters the theater, Huppert as Anne is already seated on a huge white sofa, the length of the stage, almost the only furniture in Mark Wendland’s scenic design, reading a book. When the play begins, her husband David arrives home late from his office. She then begins to question him about where he has been and if he has had a good day repeatedly, as if not accepting his answers. She had called his office and not found him in. She then switches to question him about the four day business trip he is making starting the next day, as though she suspects him of subterfuge or going off with a girlfriend. The more manic she gets, the more it seems as though she is high on pills or alcohol.
Eventually, it evolves that she is upset that their 25-year-old son Nicolas (who now lives with his girlfriend Emily) has not returned any of her calls or visited even though she has recently left an invitation for him to visit that Sunday for Mother’s Day. Although their daughter Sara, now at college visits occasionally, it is Nicolas that Anne misses. She finds her daughter unsympathetic and not very intelligent. There is an implication that she has not been leaving the house much since both children left home. Lamenting her failed marriage and her absent children, Anne declares, “I’ve been had all the way down the line.”
In the following sequence, it transpires that Nicolas had a fight with his girlfriend and came home to spend the night. When he appears for breakfast, Anne tells him how much she misses him and caresses his bare chest. In retaliation to her questioning about the fight and advice on how to live his life, he tells her that his girlfriend says that “you are trying to stop me from living.” When her husband leaves for his seminar in Buffalo, Anne puts on the red dress she has bought the day before and suggests that she and Nicolas go out to a restaurant and dancing.
And then Emily appears and Anne immediately sees her as her rival. Things spin out of control and the pills and alcohol that were visible under a chair take their toll. The final sequence set in a hospital could be real or imagined, and all that we have seen before could also be Anne’s fevered dream. Along the way there is the suggestion that David is having an affair with Emily, a hint that Emily may really be her daughter Sara, or that Emily is Anne as a younger woman. All this the members of the audience must decide for themselves.
Huppert, the consummate actress, commands the stage at all times, making all the other performers pale in comparison. As Anne, she travels from familiar to sarcastic to manic to depressed to suicidal. Initially her heavily French accented English and her staccato rhythms are difficult to follow, but eventually it becomes accessible, even appropriate to this very French play. While the role does not require much action, Huppert has found all sorts of ways of building her character: stretching out on the sofa as if sleeping, playing with a cigarette, dancing with her son in manic fashion, examining herself in a mirror. Anita Yavich’s chic costumes fit her to perfection: the severe grey turtleneck and black shirt that we first see her in, and later the short red party dress with black stockings that looks like it might be a throwback to her youth.
Cullman’s direction gives the production a surreal look, particularly due to the slide projection numbering the scenes and the almost empty setting, but he has helped the actors to build realistic performances. Television star Chris Noth gives able support as the husband who gives nothing away, but becomes hotter under collar the more that Anne needles him. As the son, Justice Smith has an air of tolerating his mother’s possessiveness but not for much longer. Odessa Young is rather enigmatic as Nicolas’ girlfriend, the Nurse in the hospital scene, and as David’s girlfriend who may be a figment of Anne’s imagination.
Christopher Hampton (Zeller’s official translator with the six English language scripts so far) is lucid and clear as far as the dialogue and strict information goes. The Atlantic Theater Company production has been slightly Americanized with the husband going off to Buffalo and Huppert’s Anne complaining of being left alone in big house in “a foreign country.” In the original French version, the couple are named Pierre and Anne and also appear in the other two parts of Zeller’s “Family trilogy,” The Father (2012), with Anne as André’s daughter and Pierre as her fiancé, and his latest play The Son (2018), now playing in London, with Pierre and Anne as the parents of a teenage Nicolas.
Ben Stanton’s lighting is an important presence in this minimalistic set: shadows of various shapes and sizes, and occasional changes in color to mark the mood. It is as dramatic as scenery usually is in a conventionally designed play. The sound and original compositions of Fitz Patton are also atmospheric. Other members of the production team include Lucy Mackinnon’s projections and J. David Brimmer’s fight direction.
Florian Zeller’s The Mother, subtitled a “black farce” in the script, is not a play for all theatergoers as it makes the audience work for its hold on reality, but it does deliver it whole. However, as Zeller has become the leading French dramatic export (look for his play The Height of the Storm on Broadway in the fall), serious theatergoers will not want to miss this second part of his trilogy to reach our shores. And a commanding performance by film superstar Isabelle Huppert is not to be missed.
The Mother (through April 13, 2019)
Atlantic Theater Company
Linda Gross Theater, 336 W. 20th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 866-811-4111 or visit http://www.atlantictheater.org
Running time: 85 minutes without an intermission