As a literary luminary slowly sinking into senility, thrashing through his failing memory like a man battling the suffocating grip of quicksand, Jonathan Pryce gives a performance of remarkable compassion, acuity and devastating power in “The Height of the Storm,” a muted but moving play by the French playwright Florian Zeller being presented by Manhattan Theatre Club at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre.
Even during the few scenes when he is not onstage, Pryce’s brooding presence seems to darken the air with a sense of embattled confusion and barely contained frustration. It’s a performance of impressive focus, given that his character, André, is, intellectually speaking, absent for long stretches of the play, adrift in the world of his own mind, teased by unhappy memory, frustrated by his inability to fix just who and where he is in time. “I’m here!” he querulously insists at one point, belying the terrifying thought that, in some sense, he is not.
The play, which features another great British acting legend, Eileen Atkins, in a similarly expert if less emotionally wrenching performance, is a companion piece of sorts to Zeller’s “The Father,” which was seen at the same theater in 2016, also in a crisp, effective translation by the playwright Christopher Hampton. (He’s more or less England’s go-to translator of French plays, with Yasmina Reza’s major works also on his resume.)
It’s not precisely clear that the characters in both plays are the same, although the protagonist of “The Father” was also named André, and had daughters named Anne (here played by Amanda Drew) and Elise (Lisa O’Hare). And in both plays the elderly André is seen to be in the grip of increasing dementia, or perhaps Alzheimer’s disease. (Frank Langella was also superb in “The Father,” a somewhat more forcefully dramatic play.)
What’s new in “The Height of the Storm” is primarily the presence of Atkins’s character, Madeleine, André’s beloved wife of 50 years. And yet Zeller, who structures his plays to emphasize both the subjectiveness and the elusiveness of truth, withdraws even this certainty. In the opening scene it seems clear that Madeleine has recently died, and Anne has come to help her father sort through his papers — and to gently persuade him, perhaps, to leave the family home and enter some sort of nursing home. And yet just a few minutes later the supposedly dead Madeleine bustles blithely into the kitchen-cum-breakfast-room where the play takes place to prepare lunch.
“The Height of the Storm” moves elliptically between scenes set ostensibly in the present or near-present, as Anne and Elise wrestle with their father’s failing mind, and those that evoke conversations in the past between André and Madeleine, or Madeleine and her daughters. Zeller fluidly if sometimes unsettlingly blends seemingly pure realism with phantasmal recollections of years past and, possibly even ghosts conjured in André’s wandering mind.
Chief among these is the enigmatic appearance of a character referred to in the program simply as the Woman (played with a nice whiff of Gallic sophistication by Lucy Cohu), who transforms, in the progress of her single scene, from a woman with whom (it seems) André had a long affair kept secret from Madeleine, to a friendly neighbor (or someone else?) who has come to encourage André to move into an elder-care facility.
Atkins’s precisely calibrated performance as Madeleine, the practical, all-providing wife whom André depended on for decades, is rich in wry, understated humor and carefully contained emotion. Even when absorbing the shocking news that her husband may have been unfaithful, she merely spills her tea, so when she lashes out at Anne, for meddling in her parents’ affairs, with an expletive, it lands with the force of a suddenly exploding land mine.
Directed by Jonathan Kent with minor-key grace, on a set by Anthony Ward that nicely blends the grandeur of a large French country house with the drabness of years of worn domesticity, the play offers limited scope for the supporting cast, all of whom are nonetheless excellent (Drew’s Anne, the more pragmatic daughter, is nicely poised between tenderness and exasperation), including James Hillier as Elise’s new boyfriend, who may (or may not) have sinister designs on André’s house.
That is among the many wellsprings of mystery that the play teases out. Harold Pinter’s influence on Zeller, here and in his other plays (“The Mother,” with Isabelle Huppert, has also been seen in New York), is clear, although there is never a sense of either slavish homage or coy imitation. Pryce’s frequent silences often have the weightiness of those in Pinter, although they are more fraught with emotion, as we feel the fear that gnaws at André almost continuously as while he keeps desperately fighting to find his bearings in a world that seems to have shifted off its axis.
The title references an actual event — although André cannot seem to remember on which night it occurred — but the play’s emotional temperature is less ferocious than sadly resigned. And Zeller occasionally tempers the bleak atmosphere of the play: Toward the close André quotes from a poem describing how even amid tempests, there come images of grace, as with a bird singing through a squall. But in the next line of the poem the darkness returns. The bird flies away, while the storms that life brings will inevitably rage on.
“The Height of the Storm” opened at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre on Tues., Sept. 24, 2019.
Creative: Written by Florian Zeller; Translated by Christopher Hampton; Original Music by Gary Yershon; Directed by Jonathan Kent; Scenic Design by Anthony Ward; Costume Design by Anthony Ward; Lighting Design by Hugh Vanstone; Sound Design by Paul Groothuis.
Producers: Manhattan Theatre Club, Simon Friend, Mark Goucher, Howard Panter and Scott Landis.
Cast: Eileen Atkins, Jonathan Pryce, Lucy Cohu, Amanda Drew, James Hillier and Lisa O’Hare.