The indignities of age escape no one, it seems, even the long-married elderly couple at the center of Florian Zeller’s deliberately jarring but deeply moving new drama “The Height of the Storm,” which opened Monday at Broadway’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre.
Like Frank Langella’s character in Zeller’s “The Father,” which had a Tony-nominated run in this Manhattan Theatre Club venue three years ago, Jonathan Pryce plays an elderly man named André with two grown daughters who appears to be in the throes of dementia, with bursts of lucidity alternating with outbursts of confusion or rage.
Here, though, the effect is less show-offy than it was in “The Father.” The 85-minute drama’s short scenes play out in quick succession on a single, hyper-realistic set (designed by Anthony Ward): the high-ceilinged rural French home where the famed author André has lived with his devoted wife of many decades, played with indomitable patience and gentleness by Eileen Atkins.
As directed by Jonathan Kent, the rapid, blackout-less jump between contradictory scenes leave the audience to puzzle out just what is true: Has Atkins’ Madeleine died, as she has promised she would not do knowing that André would be helpless to take care of himself, or is André indeed on his own? (“You think people are dead but it’s not always the case…” he teases early on about a former neighbor who pretended to die to forge a new life.) Is their younger, flightier daughter (Lisa O’Hare) bringing a real estate agent by to put the house on the market and move him (or him and his wife) into a senior facility, or is she bringing her current boyfriend — who just happens to sell properties? Has a woman (Lucy Cohu) from his past re-entered his life, dropping hints of a long-ago affair he may not remember, or has his older daughter (Amanda Drew) merely dug up clues from diaries and papers she’s found in his study?
Zeller’s play, expertly translated by Christopher Hampton, continually leaves us as disoriented as André himself — “People who try to understand things are morons,” he says at one point — and the accumulation of contradictions is both unsettling and emotionally devastating. That is particularly true in the gut-check final scene, brilliantly lit by Hugh Vanstone, which is haunting in every sense of the word.