Frank Langella Brings ‘The Father’ To Broadway; F. Murray Abraham’s ‘Nathan The Wise’ Downtown – Review

Joan Marcus

Just last week, Frank Langella was gasping for breath in his role as a Russian spy handler exposed to a deadly virus on FX’s The Americans. Here he is tonight on stage at the Manhattan Theatre Club’s Broadway venue, the Friedman Theatre, suffering an equally distraught kind of ravagement in the title role of Florian Zeller’s The Father (not to be confused with August Strindberg’s play of the same name).

The FatherAndré is his name, and he pads about a spacious apartment in his pajamas. We’re not certain where in Paris this apartment is, and neither is poor André, who shows increasing evidence of Alzheimer’s disease. André appears to be in the care of his growingly exasperated daughter Anne (Kathryn Erbe, elegant even in frustration), whose apartment this may actually be.

Anne insists her father needs an attendant; André resists even as his memory dims and his actions grow increasingly dangerous. Also as furniture disappears, reappears and shifts around Scott Pask’s warm set, gloomily lit by Donald Holder, and time is an oil slick that may send you careering forward or back without warning.

Anne brings home a series of helpmate candidates, the most appealing of whom is Laura, played with verve by Hannah Cabell; both the character and the actress give it their all.

The Father was a hit in Paris and London and is smoothly translated by Christopher Hampton (Les Liaisons Dangereuses). I don’t think Alzheimer’s has lost its shock value, especially to a generation dealing with it head-on. But Doug Hughes’ production, with one notable exception, seems slight at 90 intermissionless minutes.

The exception, of course, is Langella, giving another master class in felt performance as André regresses — devolves, really — from strong-willed fighter to whimpering babe. The very features of the actor’s face seem to lose their fineness as reality escapes him like vapor through a pinhole, and the shadow rapidly overcoming André has a visceral impact evident in everything from his declining speech to the proud mannerisms that shrink to the ever more embryonic. It’s a performance of surpassing empathy, and sadness.

Another great actor, of an entirely different sort, is traversing a tiny off-Broadway stage substituting for 12th-centuy Jerusalem in CSC Theatre’s account of Nathan The Wise. Nathan is a Jew among Christians and Muslims during a brief period noteworthy for the comity among the three religious populations. He’s played by F. Murray Abraham in this early 19th-century play by the German playwright Gotthold Ephraim Lessing.

F. Murray AbrahamIf Edward Kemp’s rather breezy adaptation is to be considered faithful to the original, Nathan is not only wise but unselfishly accommodating and unassailably optimistic. When the powerful Saladin (Austin Durant) challenges him to pronounce which of the three religions must be the One True Faith, Nathan responds rather Jewishly with a parable of Solomonic equivalency. And when his daughter Rachel (Erin Neufer) falls in love with a Christian Templar (Stark Sands) whose veins course with an anti-Jewish strain of blood, Nathan figures out how to deal with that as well, all to the ultimately agreeable accommodation of her patient caregiver Daya (Caroline Lagerfelt).

Abraham has been a ferocious Shylock and such a powerful, enduring presence on New York stages along with his film (Amadeus) and countless TV roles. Nathan The Wise offers him an opportunity to chill or, more aptly, to warm up some, in a production that (here comes another “one exception,” as in the previous review) with one exception treats the play as a fine romance and not merely some fairy tale. CSC itself is a place of magic and this is artistic director Brian Kulick’s final production before yielding the reins to John Doyle.

Nathan The WiseThe play is beautifully orchestrated, the characters all in balance even as they look great in Abraham’s glow, like good restaurant lighting (which here is by Joe Novack). On the very small stage, Tony Straiges has established a winning, Jerusalemy atmosphere and Anita Yavich’s clothes are spectaular, the characters robed in white gowns covered in graphic, stylized Hebrew and Arabic.

The one overstep is the photorealist drop covering the entire back wall, of an obviously Middle-Eastern city in ruins. I took it to be Gaza or the West Bank, but in fact it is in Syria. The idea clearly is  to leave us, after all this good will, with the unsettling thought, “And yet, look what our dissonant beliefs have wrought.” It worked.

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