Andre is confused. Moments ago, his daughter Anne brought home a chicken for dinner and gave it to her husband. But now Anne insists that there is no chicken. Not only that, she and her husband got divorced years ago.
The audience can never be sure what’s going on, where we are or who everyone is in “The Father,” a jarring and intense French drama by Florian Zeller (translated into English by Christopher Hampton) that is told from the perspective of an 80-year-old man suffering from severe dementia. After receiving acclaim in London, Manhattan Theatre Club is producing it on Broadway with Frank Langella in the lead.
Andre is first seen looking comfortable in his well-furnished Paris flat. But as the scenes progress, and as he is confronted with a baffling environment and contradictory information, he becomes increasingly unpredictable, shaken up and helpless. In one especially jarring moment, he is physically abused by his daughter’s lover, who is frustrated with the burden of having to take care of Andre.
Doug Hughes’ focused production is built around an all-out, highly emotional performance from Langella that brings to mind King Lear’s extreme fall from security into chaos. In between scenes, lights dance around the stage, as if to represent Andre’s scattershot memory. Pieces of scenery also disappear little by little, reflecting how Andre fails to notice that he is being relocated.
“The Father” is not an enjoyable play by any stretch of the imagination. It leaves you feeling uncomfortable, roughed up and exposed. But it is a dramatically effective and culturally important one that forces the audience to see the world through the eyes of someone with dementia and identify with him. It should be mandatory viewing for anyone who knows a person with dementia.