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Theatre in Review: The Mother (Atlantic Theater Company)

Isabelle Huppert, Chris Noth. Photo: Ahron R. Foster.

As one enters the Atlantic Theater's auditorium, Isabelle Huppert is already onstage, seated on a couch on Mark Wendland's attractively minimal set, chicly costumed by Anita Yavich, her red locks carefully disarrayed, her skin after all these years still retaining that Meissen china complexion. Impossibly sleek and youthful at 65, she is also impressive, even otherworldly, in her stillness. A single glance at that celebrated face, as enigmatic as that of any sphinx, and one thing is certain: Trouble is brewing.

Indeed, those unfamiliar with Huppert's film career are especially likely to be shocked by the ease with which her character, Anne, toys with her so-called loved ones; indeed, she seems to exist to unman the men in her life. When her spouse, David, enters, looking a bit like Willy Loman at the end of a bad day, does she greet him warmly or offer him a kiss? Au contraire: She bats him about psychologically, like a cat with a ball of yarn. In a cheerful voice, she lets him know that her day was "shitty," that of course he should know that, and that she feels abandoned by their son, Nicolas, who isn't returning her calls. To up the ante, she makes a sweeping, disturbing statement ("I've been had. All the way down the line") and, before David can react, she asks him how his day went. She will repeat the question, umpteen times, until he looks ready to explode.

Anne plays quite a game -- a kind of emotional three-card monte -- skillfully reshuffling the deck, provoking and deflecting, unsettling and spreading confusion all at once. She tells David that she called his office, by way of letting him know he is cheating on her, and then casually notes, "I spend my days on my own, bored sick, while you're banging little bitches in hotel rooms." Rubbing it in, she intones in her little sing-song, "Little bitches in hotel rooms." Working herself up into a micro-frenzy, she notes, with near manic speed and intensity, "I certainly took care of the children. Two children, that's quite something. I say two...three, including you." Yet every time David tries to engage with one of these jabs, she looks away, gazing into the middle distance, pronouncing, as authoritatively as any member of L'Académie française, that he must be crazy. Or, better yet, she turns on him, offering the smile of a cat sated with cream. Then she allows that the day hasn't been entirely wasted; in fact, she purchased a little red dress -- which she intends to wear to his funeral. Little wonder that Chris Noth, as David, turns away from her, eyes popping, emptying his lungs, looking like a punch-drunk prizefighter.

It gets worse when Nicolas turns up the following morning, having, during the wee hours, crashed in his childhood bedroom following a fight with his girlfriend, Emily. Anne can't even say the young lady's name; instead, she opens her mouth and makes a brief gagging noise. Really, she admits, there's nothing wrong with the young lady, aside from being vulgar, physically ugly, and morally suspect. She then informs him that Emily is almost certainly cheating on him, adding, "not to mention the fact that she probably enjoyed it much more than she does with you." Alarm bells are set off as she embraces Nicolas, whose shirt is open, running her hands over his chest in a most unmotherly way. Later, donning that dress -- the kind of flimsy, flirty little item that one chooses for a wild night of clubbing -- she insists that people would probably mistake them for lovers; a minute or two later -- well, there are some shocks that should be reserved. Let's just say there's a very good reason why Nicolas is having trouble breathing.

If you're a fan of Huppert's films, little of this will surprise. This is the actress who, playing a maid, murdered her employers (in La Cérémonie); who quietly poisoned an entire family (in Merci Pour le Chocolat); who all but sexually assaulted one of her students (in The Piano Teacher); and who treated her own rape with clinical disdain (in Elle) before making sure that the bastard got what was coming to him. She is a specialist in provocative, powerful, problematic women, and in The Mother she has a role that fits her like a glove -- the better to hide her fingerprints.

Reading this, you might think that Anne is some kind of master sadist; in fact, she is slipping through some kind of mental trap door, beneath which lies madness. Even as her behavior becomes more outrageous, she seems to be losing control of reality. She mentions Nicolas' brothers, causing him to remind her that he has only a sister. (That young lady has fled the house and for good reason, since Anne says she found the girl physically repellent from the moment of birth.) When she announces Nicolas' presence, David thinks she is fantasizing. A couple of brief exchanges between father and son hint at a breakdown and, possibly, divorce. Things become increasingly disorienting, especially with the arrival of Emily, who, as it happens, is perfectly equipped to push Anne over the edge.

All of this is good, nasty fun for fans of psychological thrillers, and I hasten to add that Florian Zeller, the playwright, keeps the audience guessing along every step of Anne's descent. The play is divided into four scenes, each of which is run twice in varying versions. (One of them involves a murder, which, in all probability, doesn't really happen.) The ground around Anne seems to shift in full audience view, leaving her increasingly at the mercy of her own confused perceptions. There is little doubt that The Mother is a slickly professional piece of writing.

If you saw The Father, also by Zeller, on Broadway a couple of seasons ago, you might find yourself wondering if The Mother is little more than an easy shocker. The Father, which featured a towering performance by Frank Langella, was a poignant and disturbing portrait of an elderly man slipping into dementia. Seeing Huppert being put through similar paces here, one might legitimately wonder if Zeller has anything more to offer; one might also start to notice that The Mother, which is subtitled "a black farce," sometimes looks like an avant-garde exercise from the days of absurdist theatre, when existentialism and the impossibility of communication were all the rage. Without a pyrotechnic performance at stage center, The Mother might seem a rather derivative entertainment.

Still, no worries here: Huppert doesn't take the stage; she has already commanded it before we enter, and she surrenders to nobody. (Her English diction, which has been criticized in other productions, is remarkably intelligible.) This is nothing against her three co-stars, who hold their own. Noth, reacting as if Anne has been possessed by alien forces, makes surprisingly sympathetic a character who is probably a liar and a cheat. Justice Smith as Nicolas, reveals the character's sullen attitude as a kind of defensive crouch, his only way of fending off his mother's entirely inappropriate intimacies. Given the unenviable assignment of playing a mystery woman -- Emily at different times may be Nicolas' lover, David's mistress, Anne's daughter, or another, possibly more sinister, character, Odessa Young handles the role's multiple implications with ease. The moment when the two women face off, practically nose to nose, while identically costumed and styled, is notably eerie.

Wendland's set, with a contemporary low-hanging ceiling contrasted with a Venetian glass chandelier, and an absurdly long white couch that sinks into the stage, provides a spotless environment of unease. It is lit with geometric precision by Ben Stanton -- who also makes canny use in changes of color temperatures -- aided by the projections of Lucy Mackinnon, which provide odd, abstract, flickering effects that could be the stuttering of Anne's mind. These moments are underscored with hard-to-define grinding noises by the sound designer, Fitz Patton, who also contributed some spectral underscoring, usually delivered via keyboard.

Even if The Mother, sometimes comes across as a strictly technical exercise, it's hard to forget the sight of Huppert, seated posture-perfect, staring straight ahead but listening to everyone else onstage with a fierce intensity, as if picking up signals from some undiscovered dimension. This, coupled with the image of her standing, amid chaos, seemingly unsure of where, and, possibly, who she is, adds up to a hard-to-shake portrait of madness. Even if The Mother is little more than a star vehicle -- oh, what a star.-- David Barbour

(12 March 2019)

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