Manhattan Theatre Club at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre
261 West 47th St. between Broadway & Eighth Aves.
Tuesday - Sunday through November 24, $79-$169
Eileen Atkins and Jonathan Pryce are more than reason enough to see Florian Zeller’s latest intricate family drama, The Height of the Storm, although the play doesn’t quite live up to its lofty ambitions. The follow-up to Zeller’s trilogy of The Father, The Mother, and The Son, this new work shares themes with its predecessors, particularly The Father; as in that story, an elderly man named André (Pryce) with two daughters, Anne (Amanda Drew) and Élise (Lisa O’Hare), is having trouble with his memory. But in this case, there has been a death, but it’s not clear whether it’s André, an extremely successful writer, or his wife, Madeleine (Atkins). References to a recent bereavement are many, yet the two elderly married characters appear in scenes together that do not seem to be flashbacks. “There’s nothing to understand. People who try to understand things are morons,” an ornery André says, which is good advice to the audience as well, who shouldn’t try to think too hard to figure out what’s happening, whether we’re watching the present, the past, or the meanderings of a man suffering from dementia.
Anne is going through her father’s papers at the request of his editor to find more material to publish. Élise and her latest boyfriend, real estate agent Paul (James Hiller), are in from Paris, about to rush back for an important meeting. Madeleine is much calmer, walking through their vegetable garden and making her husband’s favorite mushroom dish. (The play takes place in Anthony Ward’s cozy, high-ceilinged kitchen set.) But when a woman (Lucy Coho) arrives claiming to be an old friend of André’s, his memory is tested yet again. “I had a life. I don’t deny it. But in the end, what’s left?” André opines. “A few faces? A few names lost in the fog? Here and there . . . Not much more. May as well forget everything.”
Pryce (Comedians, Miss Saigon), who has won two Tonys and two Olivier Awards, and three-time Olivier Award winner Atkins (Honour, A Room of One’s Own) are impeccable, delivering meticulous performances anchored by the fear that after fifty years of marriage, either André or Madeleine must go first, leaving the other one alone. Drew (Three Days in the Country, Enron), who played Anne in James Macdonald’s production of The Father at the Duke of York’s Theatre in 2016, is staunchly resolute as the daughter trying to keep everything from falling apart. The ninety-minute play features profound lighting by Hugh Vanstone, particularly as it relates to Pryce, who is sometimes cast in darkness while the others remain lit and talking. But director Jonathan Kent (Plenty, Naked) and translator Christopher Hampton (who did the same for the previous three related works) don’t always maneuver fluidly through the narrative; part of the intent is to set the viewer off balance, but too much manipulative confusion is not ideal, especially when accompanied by a clichéd twist. “What is my position? What is my position here? What is my position? My position! What is my position here? My position. Here. What is it? My position . . . what is it?” André frantically demands at one point. The audience is often not sure, which can be both hypnotic and aggravating.