Thursday, April 4, 2019

202 (2018-2019): Review: THE MOTHER (seen April 3, 2019)

“Vive la Huppert!”

Seeing Isabelle Huppert in Florian Zeller’s self-described “dark farce” The Mother, at the Atlantic Theater Company, made me wonder: what defines a great actress? Versatility in playing any role? Magnetic charisma? Extraordinary sensitivity to nuance? Physical and vocal beauty? Dazzling interpretive insights? Willingness to do anything, no matter how foolish, revealing, or exhausting? The ability to make even questionable material compelling? 
Isabelle Huppert. Photo: Ahron R. Foster.
Surely, some combination of these, as well as other qualities I’ve left out. Perhaps we should simply confine ourselves to what Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart said of obscenity in 1964: “I know it when I see it.” I see it in Isabelle Huppert.
Isabelle Huppert, Chris Noth. Photo: Ahron R. Foster.
France has given the world many great actresses, of course, but any top ten list of those still active, like Catherine Deneuve, Audrey Tautou, Juliet Binoche, or Marion Cottillard, would be worthless if it didn’t include Huppert, now 65, and as delicately slender, beautiful, and thrillingly watchable as ever.
Chris Noth. Photo: Ahron R. Foster.
Although well-supported by Chris Noth (The Best Man, TV’s “Sex and the City”), Odessa Young (Days of Rage), and Justice Smith (Yen), she alone is the reason to see The Mother, Christopher Hampton’s smooth translation of French playwright Zeller’s La Mère. It’s the second in a trilogy including The Father, which starred Frank Langella on Broadway in 2016, and The Son, now playing in London and coming here in the fall.

Like The Father, about an aging man’s dementia, The Mother (seen in London in 2016) is also concerned with a mental breakdown, that of an upper-middle-class wife and mother, played by Huppert with wit, passion, and devil-may-care ferocity. The premise gives the playwright numerous options for introducing behavioral anomalies that permit ambiguous theatrical situations, allowing Huppert to chew what little scenery she’s provided by Mark Wendland’s spare setting.
Chris Noth. Photo: Ahron R. Foster.
That setting is the home of Anne (Huppert)—the Mother in the program—and Peter (Noth)—the Father in the program. It’s represented at the start by a huge, white couch, comprising seven two-cushion sections stretching horizontally across almost all the wide, mostly bare, brick wall-surrounded stage. A tall mirror leans against the wall, stage right. When the light allows, we can make out numerous discarded pill vials under the couch. LA MÉRE is projected on the rear wall. Overhead hangs a white, partial, dropped ceiling, with a large open space occupied by a grand chandelier. Later, the entire couch will descend on a trap, leaving the stage even emptier.
Justice Smith. Photo: Ahron R. Foster.
Seated alone on the couch is the elegantly attired (by Anita Yavich), red-headed. 47-year-old Anne, who’s there throughout the 15 or so minutes preceding the show’s beginning, reading, looking about in utter boredom, and napping, until she’s awakened by Peter returning from work.

What follows, over 85 uninterrupted minutes, are four acts, each introduced by a shaky projection in French, marking it as “Un,” “Deux,” “Trois,” and “Quatre,” with each seen in more than one variation of the same material. The basic situation is that Anne, seething with jealousy because she suspects her businessman husband of cheating, treats him with unexpected snippiness, even loathing.
Isabelle Huppert, Justice Smith. Photo: Ahron R. Foster.
He, normalcy itself and seemingly baffled by her increasingly odd behavior, struggles to make her explain what’s bugging her. She, apart from her jabs at his “bitch” and “little whore,” and the like, maintains an aloof veneer undercut by vicious sarcasm. He, claiming innocence, would like to resolve the issue but he’s got to catch a train in the morning for a four-day seminar in Buffalo, a theme threading through the play.
Isabelle Huppert, Chris Noth, Justice Smith. Photo: Ahron R. Foster.
Further exacerbating things is the arrival of Nicolas (Smith, a fine actor but oddly cast)—the Son in the program—depressed because of his breakup with Emily (Young, who also plays other women, including a high-heeled nurse)—the Girl in the program. Anne, unable to handle her empty-nester loneliness (her daughter also is no longer home), and without any outside interests to occupy her empty hours, has an incestuously smothering love for Nicolas. This is represented by her rubbing of his bare chest, and worse. She denigrates Emily (saying whose name makes her retch) and is excited to have her son back home, desperately hoping he’ll stay.
Odessa Young. Photo: Ahron R. Foster.
As we watch the various ways Anne interacts with Peter, Nicolas, and Emily, we realize that what we’re seeing are Anne’s projections, making it impossible to say just what’s actually happening and what’s roiling her frenzied imagination. As she spirals further into delirium, we also aren’t sure if her delusions are the result of incipient madness or caused by her reckless predilection for mixing alcohol and pills.
Odessa Young. Photo: Ahron R. Foster.
Zeller’s essentially simple plot of Anne’s descent, culminating with her in a hospital bed, never clarifies the truth about either Peter’s alleged adultery or just what’s going on between Nicolas and Emily. It comes off chiefly as a vehicle for Huppert, who goes really wild, including dressing (as we watch) in black, mesh stockings, spiked heels, and a red minidress so tiny her sexy slip and garter belt keep showing. (Emily will appear in the same dress, but less revealingly.)
Isabelle Huppert. Photo: Ahron R. Foster.
Anne’s manic behavior includes whipping her red hair around like a kabuki lion and other energetic, broadly physical acts, demonstrating a range of emotional highs and lows that would be exhausting for someone half her age. American actresses, who--in this tobacco-challenged age--so often make holding a cigarette look like holding a rat--should study how Huppert can hypnotize just by blowing smoke.

Director Trip Cullman’s staging gives her plenty of histrionic space to do her thing, with notable contributions from the strange electronic sound effects of Fritz Patton and the stylized lighting of Ben Stanton, which always finds a way to spotlight Huppert’s face.
Isabelle Huppert, Odessa Young. Photo: Ahron R. Foster.
Huppert, whose mother was an English teacher, speaks the language fluently but with an obvious accent, almost always clearly understandable but momentarily unintelligible when a piece of dialogue requires rushing. No matter. Her intentions are always clear, even when she’s being deliberately obfuscating.
Isabelle Huppert, Justice Smith. Photo: Ahron R. Foster.

I felt privileged to join the many theatregoers at the Atlantic (this is a HOT ticket) anxious to see this legendary star of stage and screen. This was true even though I was neither moved nor otherwise simulated by a play whose principal achievement is to use mental illness as a springboard for theatrical devices designed to drive an otherwise uninteresting, unoriginal plot. Vive la Huppert! Not so The Mother.

Linda Gross Theater/Atlantic Theater Company
336 W. 20th St., NYC
Through April 13