Before “The Mother” begins, after being seated one can stare at Isabelle Huppert sitting alone on the stage. There is the great French actress, quietly looking at a book in hand or seeming to contemplate, as if in a portrait, and audience members can have their fill of staring at her, sizing up her trim figure, overall attractiveness and wondering what the star may do in this play by French author Florian Zeller that is being presented by the Atlantic Theater Company.
When the play finally does start, Huppert suddenly becomes vividly alive with fiery dialogue in English as translated by Christopher Hampton. She gestures dramatically, and her darting eyes sometimes speak as loudly as her sharp words. We are witnessing the beginning of what will lead to a breakdown with pill popping and wine, and a brain load of anger and jealousy. Huppert’s English is excellent and her acting is triumphant. This is a chance to see a great actress conquering a challenging role.
Zeller also wrote a play called “The Father,” with Frank Langella giving an award-winning performance as a man sinking into dementia. (See Search for review.) In “The Mother” Huppert portrays Anne, a woman in the process of a psychological breakdown and feeling the terror of being left alone at middle age, with a daughter away on her own and a son who rarely visits. Most acute is the fear of losing the son, Nicolas (Justice Smith), for whom she craves affection to an extreme. She also is convinced that the son’s father, her husband Peter, to whom she has been married for 25 years, is cheating on her, and she’s probably right. He is played with increasing intensity by Chris Noth, giving an excellent performance in combat with Anne, whom he vainly tries to convince that it is just a business trip he is about to take.
Zeller’s method is to divide the play (90 minutes without an intermission) into different parts. Each plays out differently, whether examining alternate ways in which a scene could work out and/or expressing what’s raging in Anne’s imagination. There is, for example, a horrific, violent scene, and at one point Anne thinks a hospital bed is in her living room.
The jealousy played out is startling. In a sensual scene Anne is all over her son, stroking his exposed hairy chest, cuddling, and oozing sexuality. Nicholas is clearly feeling stifled by his mother’s behavior. Anne at one point dons a flimsy red dress barely covering her posterior. In a scene in which Nicolas’s girlfriend, Emily, (Odessa Young) shows up, she is also wearing a matching red dress, epitomizing Anne’s jealousy and perhaps her fantasizing about a mirror image of herself. Rest assured that Huppert makes everything come dynamically vibrant, and the frenzy Anne injects into her character’s behavior reflects her prowess as an actress, with a wide array of gestures and body language that help define every aspect of her being.
The playwright invites us to guess what is real and what is imaginary. At one point the son asks his father, “Did you tell her?” We never learn specifically what he is supposed to have told, but we can assume it probably refers to an intention by Peter to leave home.
All that occurs before our eyes is riveting, primarily because of Huppert’s impressive acting display. But the three others—Noth, Smith and Young—are also first rate. The play is extremely complex, and the cast members rise to the demands on them. Director Trip Cullman succeeds in keeping the parts spinning smoothly, with each scene standing firmly on its own.
Mark Wendland’s scenic design is most unusual. The stage is traversed by a long, long white sofa. It serves to keep Noth and Huppert widely apart as they argue. At one juncture the sofa suddenly disappears, leaving an almost bare stage as the action shifts dramatically. Anita Yavich’s costume design is highlighted by that super-sexy red dress. People may react differently to “The Mother” as a play, but the work is getting a top-notch staging here, and this is a rare chance to see why Huppert is regarded as such a fine actress, not only on screen, but effective on stage as well in a vehicle that allows her to sparkle. At the Atlantic Theater Company’s Linda Gross Theater, 336 West 20th Street. Phone: 866-811-4111. Reviewed March 17, 2019.