REVIEW: Isabelle Huppert in “The Mother”
The second installment of Mr. Zeller’s unrelated (no pun intended) “Family Trilogy”—after “The Father”, which played on Broadway in 2016, and followed by “The Son”, which has its London premiere this spring—this disturbing and disorienting dark comedy, translated by Christopher Hampton and subtitled “a black farce”, is a devastating look at maternal sublimation and abandonment.
Isabelle Huppert (an Academy Award nominee for “Elle”) stars as Anne, a French woman living in America who suddenly finds her life rudderless and without purpose. The kids are now grown and out of the house. Her husband, David (Chris Noth, “The Good Wife”), cheats. And she hasn’t much to do but tidy up and shop. She’s reading a book as the audience enters the Linda Gross Theater, perched stage left on an impossibly long, white leather couch that spans the width of the white floor and frame-ceilinged stage pierced by a gaudy chandelier and a full length mirror stage right (set design by Mark Wendland with laser-sharp lighting by Ben Stanton).
The play exists in Anne’s mind as much as it does on stage, dialogue forming loops, and scenes replaying with different results. Anne proclaims, “I know how to tell the difference between dreams and reality”, but the surreal impinges upon the real to create a highly theatrical, distorted, collage-like present in which the story occurs. Perhaps the whole thing is a dream, fueled by a special cocktail of uppers and downers she takes “to stay alive”.
What is spoken and what is thought remains a blur, a comment on how much of life is performance, and how subtext and internal monologue silently inform every moment of our lives. The play is divided into four acts, each denoted by a projection of the act or scene number during transitions. Perhaps meant to add another element of disorientation to the performance, the purpose is not readily clear as an audience member, and rather confusing as scene and act numbers jump incongruously, much like Anne’s mind.
“The Mother” is the kind of play I expect to see as a European import at the Park Avenue Armory or St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn. For the Atlantic Theater Company in Chelsea, director Trip Cullman (“Choir Boy”, “Lobby Hero”) delivers some of his finest work to date, creating an unsettling and totally enveloping mise-en-scène while eliciting a captivating quartet of performances. It takes a couple minutes to adjust to Ms. Huppert’s thick French accent and the peculiar logic of the play, but once things click, she is simply ravishing and impossible not to watch—each roll of the eye and shrug of the shoulder impeccable, and with purpose.
Ms. Huppert and Mr. Noth are joined by Justice Smith, who plays their distant son, Nicolas, and Odessa Young who plays “The Girl” who comes to represent all the various women who taunt Anne’s mind, if not her reality: her son’s girlfriend, Emily; her husband’s girlfriend; her “unsympathetic” daughter who abandons her; and even the memory of her younger, “naive” self.
The play is a meditation on this theme, rather than a plot-driven story, and Anne’s predicament—and Ms. Huppert’s devastating performance of desperation—offer a dynamic and chilling exploration of that theme. As she hangs on to her visiting adult son, rubbing his chest or hugging him from behind, wanting only to cook for him or do his laundry, it becomes clear that Anne is right when she declares early on: “I’ve been had”. Alone, awaiting a phone call that never comes, she remembers the happiest time of her life as the days she’d make lunches and usher her children to school.
“The Mother” is hardly an uplifting play, but rarely is its theme seen in such focused, high relief on stage. While it appears this production is sold out, it’s worth looking for a ticket, and while you do, call your mother.
Bottom Line: Isabelle Huppert offers a devastating portrait of maternal sublimation and abandonment in Florian Zeller’s disturbing and disorienting dark comedy, “The Mother”. Under the brilliant direction of Trip Cullman, the play offers a highly theatrical, distorted, collage-like, meditative, and surreal look at one woman coping with an empty nest, a loveless marriage, and a purposeless life. My advice: get tickets if you can. And call your mother.
Linda Gross Theater
Atlantic Theater Company
336 West 20th Street
New York, NY 10011
Running Time: 85 minutes (no intermission)
Opening Night: March 11, 2019
Final Performance: April 13, 2019