Friday, October 4, 2019

82 (2019-2020): Review: THE HEIGHT OF THE STORM (seen October 2, 2019)

"Tempest in a Weak Plot"

It was pouring on Tuesday night—the height of the storm, actually—when I arrived at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre to see the aptly named The Height of the Storm. This is the Manhattan Theatre Club’s importation of Christopher Hampton’s translation of French playwright Florian Zeller’s play, as produced at Wyndham’s Theatre in London, and starring the distinguished British stars, Eileen Atkins and Jonathan Pryce. As in his The Mother and The Father, Zeller dramatizes the aberrant behavior of an aging character experiencing some form of dementia. It's a superficially intriguing drama whose principal contribution is the priceless acting of Pryce and Atkins.

Inspired by his subjects’ raddled minds, he creates plays that seem on their surface rational and straightforward until the mirror of life begins to fracture.  Is what we’re seeing actually happening? Is it all in someone’s erratic imagination? Is it a combination of both? As in The Height of the Storm, his plots are not particularly original, but he so manipulates the obvious that it becomes elusive and keeps his audience involved more by theatrical legerdemain than by anything much deeper.
Lucy Cohu, Eileen Atkins, Amanda Drew, Jonathan Pryce, Lisa O'Hare.
The Height of the Storm, in fact, reminded me of the not-all-that-dissimilar hocus pocus, designed to illuminate a narrative of marital betrayal, in Pinter’s Betrayal. Adultery, in fact, is the principal dramatic nugget in Zeller’s plot, such as it is. It tells the tale of an esteemed, elderly, French writer, André (Pryce), and his lovingly supportive wife, Madeleine, as they rumble around the huge kitchen of their discreetly shabby, rural pile, somewhere outside of Paris.

Where Pinter illuminates his subject by reversing the chronological order of his story, Zeller moves among the days when one, the other, or both of his leading characters are alive, and after one, the other, or both are dead, leaving the audience to suss out, if they ever do, which is which, and what is what.
Jonathan Pryce.
As Zeller explores the relationship between the sometimes roaringly crotchety, literary lion and his subtly commanding spouse, the action, meticulously directed by Jonathan Kent, shifts from what seem present-time scenes to those in the past, although it’s occasionally vague as to when is when. He focuses on the relationship between the married couple as well as those they have with their adult daughters. These are the earnest Anne (Amanda Drew), there to compile or edit André’s papers, and the flightier Élise (Lisa O’Hare), who arrives with her latest beau, a realtor (James Hillier), preoccupied with business on his cellphone, who takes some interest in the value of André and Madeleine’s house.  
Eileen Atkins.
Providing something from André’s past into which to sink our teeth is a mysterious, somewhat younger, voluptuous woman (Lucy Cohu), whose Germanic name (Mrs. Scharz? Mrs. Schwart?) Madeleine can’t get right, providing a few laughs. She may have been André’s lover but Zeller—who makes André's memory of her unstable—uses her exposition to toy with perceptions of truth and fantasy.

The lack of substance, or the conventionality of what substance there is, is not as important in these plays as the opportunity the dialogue and situations provide for nuanced, emotionally vivid emoting. Each actor from the Wyndham’s production is present, showing the typically high quality of British stage acting, but, as with the New York stagings of The Mother, which starred Isabelle Huppert, and The Father, with Frank Langella, The Height of the Storm weaves its spell through the power of its magnificent stars.
Jonathan Pryce, Eileen Atkins.
Atkins’s Madeleine is a model of stoic, knowing control, aware of just which buttons to press and which to avoid in handling her difficult husband. When she does, briefly, let rip, it’s a moment to remember. Pryce’s André, sometimes raging, sometimes hectoring, and sometimes frightened to the point of trembling, commands the stage with every gesture and inflection. When, toward the conclusion, the pair are alone, she promising her fearful husband, “I’ll always be there,” all the cerebration that previously has cooled our feelings flies out the window and we share, as nowhere else in the play, the depth of love and the pain of loss experienced at some point in every long-term human relationship.
Eileen Atkins, Jonathan Pryce.
Anthony Ward’s kitchen setting of towering, ceilinged walls, coming to an upstage apex with a booklined study at one side and a hallway at the other, uses a perspective forced just enough to suggest that things are a bit askew. Hugh Vanstone’s lighting has the awesome painterliness of a master, beautifully fading his characters in and out as per each moment’s needs. The original music of Gary Yershon and the sound design of Paul Groothuis greatly enhance the auditory ambience.
Jonathan Pryce.
Even if The Height of the Storm confuses you, or fails to satisfy your need for complex dramatic action, it will likely compel your interest, if only because of how ardently Atkins and Pryce capture the essence of mutual companionship. It’s the height of acting.

Samuel J. Friedman Theatre
261 W. 47th St., NYC
Through November 24