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Theatre in Review: The Height of the Storm (Samuel J. Friedman Theatre)

Jonathan Pryce, Eileen Atkins. Photo: Joan Marcus.

I can't be absolutely sure -- memory, as the playwright Florian Zeller knows, is a tricky thing -- but I believe The Height of the Storm may be the first play to lose its mind.

How else to explain the cunningly constructed, profoundly melancholy doings currently onstage at the Friedman? The curtain rises on a stunningly designed (by Anthony Ward) French country house. Jonathan Pryce, looking both monumental and ravaged, like a Rodin sculpture worn down by the elements, is staring into the middle distance as his sensible, tactful daughter Anne is trying to talk sense to him. (André, Pryce's character, was an eminent novelist, but his haunted look reveals volumes about his faded intellect.) Clearly, he has been recently widowed and, just as clearly, he is no longer at his best. Anne, sliding into what is surely a difficult topic, suggests that a real estate agent will be dropping by -- subject to André's approval, of course -- to look the place over. Just in case. No pressure. André's response is a Lear-like roar: "What you have denied me in grams, I will rip from you by the ton."

Quite apart from the ferocity of his retort, whence come these words? The script makes clear that he is quoting someone. Is André drawing on one of his own works? Why does he remember this passage when his grip on reality seems so tenuous? Even as one ponders these questions, something confounding happens: There is a shift in the lighting and in comes Madeleine, André's supposedly dead wife, in the guise of Eileen Atkins, brisk, busy, and sensibly clad in skirt and sweater. Looking at a vase whose contents were delivered a few minutes earlier, she sniffs, "All these flowers...I find it sinister." Suddenly, Anne is deep in conversation with her mother about André, who has been relegated to darkness.

And so it goes, as one state of being melts into another, with Anne, her sister, Elise, and other characters seemingly playing out parallel scenarios in which either André or Madeleine has passed away. Possibly The Height of the Storm is filtered through the mind of André, who is being overtaken by dementia, but, somehow, I think that's not it -- or not entirely; he drifts too far out of certain scenes at times. Rather, Zeller seems to be playing with both possibilities at once -- a couple together for half a century facing the loss of one partner or another -- employing narratives that, rather like its elderly lead characters, are either faltering or collapsing in on each other. It's a tricky, ambiguous game Zeller plays, and an intriguing one, rooted in a truth that eventually comes calling for us all. As anyone of a certain age knows, names, faces, and dates become scrambled over time; the details of once-cherished episodes become indistinct and events that once seemed of paramount importance devolve into anecdotes or disappear altogether. The Height of the Storm challenges us to figure out which version of events is the real one, knowing full well that such efforts will be fruitless. It's fascinating that the play is running on Broadway concurrently with a revival of Betrayal, for surely Zeller is the true inheritor of Harold Pinter's theatre of ambiguity.

Adding to the intrigue is Zeller's skill at shuffling plot details, in the process reimagining their significance. A proposed dinner of mushrooms links to a newspaper story about an elderly couple committing suicide (via poisoned fungus) at the same hotel where they -- and also André and Madeleine -- enjoyed their honeymoon. A real estate agent shows up, but he is the boyfriend of their daughter Elise, who, nevertheless, upsets André by noting rather too acutely the salability of the house. Anne, going through her father's papers, discovers in his diary a secret that throws her parents' seemingly happy marriage into question. The aforementioned flowers have apparently come without a card; later, they are found to bear evidence of a truth that André has been unable to face.

Given their ability to stare down such unpleasant facts of life, Zeller's plays might seem uncommercial on the surface, but they generally play like houses afire and he writes the kind of roles that attract stars. This production is no exception. Pryce is magnificent as André, who is either demented, pole-axed by grief, or simply unable to function without Madeleine -- perhaps all three. He finds many ways of physicalizing the character's precarious state: The sight of his right hand, planted in his pocket, trembling furiously, is a poignant signal of existential distress. He makes the most of a strange story about a run-in with an acquaintance who had mysteriously disappeared. ("You think people are dead, but it's not always the case.") Presented with an old friend (perhaps a lover) whom he doesn't remember, he offers a frantic series of assents that fool no one and, lost in a maze of events he doesn't fully comprehend, he offers the same question ("What is my position here?") repeatedly, turning it into a cry of terror.

Working beautifully in tandem with her co-star, Atkins, displaying a vitality that defies her years, underplays skillfully, making Madeleine the penetrating observer of the household's activity as well as its center of gravity. When one of her daughters insists that they visited this weekend only to be with her, she provides a simple reply ("Perhaps you did") that chills with its detachment. Dismissing Elise's boyfriend ("I wonder where she digs them up"), she invests the line with such a knowledge of the young lady's unhappy history that it's impossible not to laugh. And, offering a profound statement of devotion, she recalls how André "made me promise to outlive him...And I'm not the kind of person who doesn't keep her promises."

Or is she? You're likely to find yourself guessing until the action reaches a terminus with one character left alone, framed in a cold shaft of light, waiting for -- what? Hugh Vanstone's superb lighting plays a key role, shifting between realities, highlighting principal characters or eliminating them from a scene, and generally adding to the allure of Ward's attractively cluttered kitchen set.

Zeller's plays are delicate things, requiring silken treatment if they are to have an effect. Fortunately, Jonathan Kent's direction never puts a foot wrong, and the stars have excellent support from Amanda Drew as Anne, the sensible, aggrieved daughter; Lisa O'Hare as Elise, she of the disorderly private life; James Hillier as Elise's not entirely reliable lover; and Lucy Cohu as a visitor who may have been André's great friend or his lover -- a point that she often fails to make clear herself. Ward's costumes constitute a solid series of character studies -- note the contrast between Anne and Elise's restrained wardrobes and the jarring leopard-skin frock worn by Cohu's character -- and Paul Groothuis' sound design provides fine reinforcement for Gary Yershon's original music.

The Height of the Storm may be Zeller's third pass at this subject matter but he can hardly be said to be repeating himself. In contrast to The Father and The Mother, each of which played like a psychological thriller, this one is marked by an autumnal quality, a sense of dying light and the slipping-away of memory, intellect, and, perhaps, love, until nothing is left. Only a remarkable playwright could provide such solid entertainment while holding up a mirror to such dismaying truths. Zeller continues to impress, rendering the mind's failings with a beautiful lucidity.--David Barbour


(30 September 2019)

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