The French novelist and playwright Florian Zeller has written a sequence of three plays focused on family and fragility: first, The Mother (La Mère), then The Father (Le Père; performed on Broadway in 2016, starring Frank Langella), and most recently The Son (Le Fils). Some names of characters recur in these productions, but the plays are conceptually rather than formally related.
However, in the script and playbill for The Mother, which opens tonight off- Broadway at the Atlantic Theater Company (to April 13) starring Isabelle Huppert and Chris Noth (and who would ever have them put them together as a stage coupling until now?), the characters are listed as The Mother (Huppert), The Father (Noth), The Son (Justice Smith), and The Girl (Odessa Young).
Not pinning proper names on to the characters turns them into archetypes and perhaps more pliable fictional forms for what Zeller himself calls “a black farce.”
He isn’t kidding. The play, translated into English by Christopher Hampton and directed with care and stealth by Trip Cullman, opens with Huppert as Anne, the mother, sitting at the far end of a stage-spanning white sofa. The stage, designed by Mark Wendland, is raised on tables to our eye level. We can’t see beyond the white sofa, but over yonder seems to be another table, and there must be stairs because characters occasionally wander up and down them. There is a white chandelier and a mirror.
The challenges to our perception presented by the staging are echoed in the play. Simply put, we are not entirely sure what is real, and what has actually happened. Anne keeps asking David where he has been, and has he been unfaithful. The answer to this the play reveals (but not here).
Why the repetitions? Huppert, who commands all of our attention, is coiled, tense, a clash of bodily angles. Noth as David, the husband, is besuited, eternally about to leave for a seminar in Buffalo (which Huppert’s accent converts, beautifully, to “Boofalow”). This cat is on a stark white sofa, rather than a hot tin roof: at different moments Anne is angry, happy, goading, furious, accusing, withdrawn, mocking, scorning, needy, steely, scheming, bereft, and dismissive.
Like Noth, we wonder why she is repeating herself. Has Anne, like the male lead in The Father, got dementia? Noth’s character looks at her as bemusedly as we feel. Or are we watching different versions of a reality play out, like on The Affair? Is she gaslighting him? Has he gaslighted her? Is this a person on the verge of a breakdown, or recovering from one, or both?
We are most likely watching the stop-start nature of a malfunctioning mind. Anne is ill, and we seem to be watching manifestations, tics, and horrible tricks of that illness. The people around her are real, and saying real things. But we are also watching everything through the filter of Anne’s wild suspicions, mistrust and (when it comes to her son) a far-too-fierce love.
We see pill bottles littered beneath the couch. “I spend my days on my own bored sick, while you’re banging little bitches in hotel rooms…” Anne says to David. He wonders why she doesn’t occupy herself. She says she was occupied when she was bringing up their two children (“three including you”). She is excited to have bought a red dress. Maybe she’ll wear it to a special occasion, like his funeral.
Huppert and Zeller are both French, and so she knows exactly what tones he is coloring into the text; an haut-bourgeois jangling of accusations, snarks, and clashing temperaments. But Noth and the others are not French, and the play suffers from an oddly geographical question of who this couple is and how they ever came to be. They seem the very opposite of ever-suited.
She tells him, for example, that their son Nicolas sees his father “as an anti-role model. Obviously, he’s an artist. He told me that as far as he was concerned, to be anything like you would mean his life was a failure. To some extent, I agree with him.”
Mother and son’s relationship is close, excessively so. More than once Huppert’s hands caress Nicolas’ chest; she loves being with him so much so that she tries to destroy his relationship with his girlfriend. Young's bolshy assertiveness provides a strong counter to Huppert’s fluttering malignancy, and the two share a charged scene both clothed in mirroring red dresses; another imagining borne of Anne’s illness presumably.
Noth has little more to do than look exasperated and puzzled; the stakes in this marriage seem very low for him. The Mother, as a character, is most passionate about The Son, giddy around him as if he were her true love. She wants them to go out and eat shellfish, then dance, and “get some fresh ideas.”
The Mother is as claustrophobic as it is opaque; we feel as trapped as Huppert's character is, or has made herself. How many children does she have? Her own son disputes that he has siblings. He recoils from her insistent presence. Her husband doesn’t want her. Her illness means that already fragile relationships are being tested ever more destructively.
In a transfixing performance, Huppert gives Anne strength, resolve, wiliness and weakness. As she whirls, strips, sits still, dances, cajoles, intrudes, fades away and insults, all feel like mini-fists of defiance aimed at whatever and whoever is attacking her mind.
That pain and deterioration leads to some particularly shocking scenes. Yet still Anne, in Huppert’s masterful interpretation of Zeller’s difficult, slippery text, carries on: tough, vulnerable, trapped, and still fighting.