By Florian Zeller; Translated by Christopher Hampton
Directed by Trip Cullman
Off Broadway, Play
Runs through 4.13.19
Atlantic Theater Company, 336 West 20th Street
by Ken Kaissar on 4.12.19
Isabelle Huppert, Chris Noth, and Justice Smith in The Mother. Photo by Ahron R. Foster.
BOTTOM LINE: An excellent performance by French film star Isabelle Huppert, in a fine drama that blends absurdist elements with menacing comedy.
If you’re a fan of French cinema, Isabelle Huppert needs no introduction. With a career that goes all the way back to the early ‘70s and a filmography that lists 130 credits, Huppert is an international star. This spring, New York audiences are lucky enough to see her deliver a sensational performance on an intimate Off Broadway stage.
Huppert plays the title role in this interesting piece by French playwright Florian Zeller, translated by Christopher Hampton. The play blends the absurdist style of early Edward Albee with the menacing comedy of Harold Pinter. The Mother deals with the decay of the family unit, and follows the Mother’s constant battle with loneliness and her sense of futility as the Father (Chris Noth) constantly leaves her alone to go off to seminars in Buffalo (or as hilariously pronounced in Huppert’s French accent, “Boofalow”). The Son (Justice Smith) never calls and never visits, until he faces a relationship squabble with the Girl (Odessa Young), and seeks refuge in his childhood bed.
Huppert’s brilliance as an actor transfers seamlessly from screen to stage. She performs with gorgeous elegance, and her French accent adds hilarious condescension and bite to the cast-off and forgotten matriarch archetype. Every time she asks her husband if he is going to his “se-mee-NARRCH in BOOF-a-low,” the audience cracks up in recognition that she is obviously mocking and belittling him. Huppert is on stage when the house opens for audience seating, inhabiting the set for a full thirty minutes before the play begins. This gives a sense of the uneventful tedium and unhappiness that she faces in her daily life. It also gives the audience a generous opportunity to stare at a celebrity without appearing impolite.
Under the direction of Trip Cullman, Mark Wendland’s set is elegant and gorgeous. The centerpiece is an unrealistically long sofa that stretches the length of the entire stage, as if the sofa is Mother’s whole universe, stretching on into infinity. The entire four-member ensemble turns in a fine performance, though much of the play’s substance is reserved for the Mother, and so Huppert carries the burden and honor of doing most of the heavy lifting.
Though I enjoyed the play very much, I do find myself fatigued by its absurdist and menacing style. This brand of theatre was en vogue from the ‘50s through the ‘70s but in 2019, it feels overdone and stale. Further, women are no longer compelled or expected to be homemakers and caretakers, so the story of the unappreciated mother does not particularly feel of the moment. Without the auspicious Huppert driving this fine, if expired, project, I’m not sure this piece would be notable at all. Having said that, Huppert is nothing if not notable, and she may never be this accessible to New York audiences again. Even if the play transfers to a Broadway stage, it won’t be the same as this wonderfully intimate experience.
(The Mother played at the Atlantic Theater Company, 336 West 20th Street, through April 13, 2019. The running time was 90 minutes with no intermission. For more information visit atlantictheater.org.)
The Mother is by Florian Zeller, translated by Christopher Hampton. Directed by Trip Cullman. Set Design by Mark Wendland. Costume Design by Ania Yavich. Lighting Design by Ben Stanton. Sound Design and original compositions by Fitz Patton. Projection Design by Lucy Mackinnon. Stage Manager is Samantha Watson.
The cast is Isabelle Huppert, Chris Noth, Justice Smith, and Odessa Young.