‘The Mother’ Theater Review: An Empty Nest Imprisons Isabelle Huppert

Chris Noth joins the actress in Florian Zeller’s latest exploration into parental madness

In Florian Zeller’s “The Father,” which played on Broadway three years ago, an older man suffers from dementia. In Zeller’s “The Mother,” which opened Monday at the Atlantic Theater Company, a middle-aged woman suffers from a debilitating depression.

Is Zeller advising us all not to have children? In “The Mother,” the kids clearly return no favors to mom or dad upon leaving the nest. The adult daughter never appears and the son (Justice Smith) crashes one night in his parents’ house after a fight with his girlfriend (Odessa Young), only to take off the following day when she appears with promises of wild sex. How can any mom compete with that?

In the two Zeller plays, the title characters’ state of mind is painfully jumbled and the playwright leaves us guessing as to what has really just taken place or been said, and scenes are sometimes repeated but altered in the ways our memory reshapes events in the past. Curiously, Zeller does include in each play one scene where the title character is off stage and the other characters deliver important information about the respective parent’s mental state.

Those scenes help to ground our perspective — until then, we may be floundering as to what’s real or not — but they also rob us of what otherwise is most riveting about “The Father” and “The Mother.” For 90 minutes or so, we experience what it is to have our mind completely unravel. It’s not unlike the vicarious thrill you get watching a 1970s disaster movie: How do somebody live through an earthquake or a tsunami? The difference is, Zeller takes us on a journey far more frightening because it’s far more common and no one survives.

Isabelle Huppert is the mother, and she brings her signature icy hauteur to the role. In the beginning, it’s a delight to watch Huppert be a total bitch to her husband (Chris Noth) well before we know she’s suffering severe depression — as if the many discarded bottles of orange plastic pill bottles littered under the mile-long white sofa aren’t a major clue (set design by Mark Wendland).

She says things a wife may think but isn’t supposed to say out loud — like wishing him dead. Even more outrageous, she says things about her children a mother may think but isn’t supposed to say — like how much she prefers her son to her daughter. Those whoppers are only the tip of her compelling acidity, which recedes rapidly as soon as she gets her eager hands on that long-absent son, an obvious lover substitute. There’s no longer any semblance of affection between wife and husband, who is forever running late and off to yet another seminar in Buffalo, of all places. The son is another matter, and Huppert’s weaponizing of a dangerously short red dress (costumes by Anita Yavich) to steal her son’s attention away from his girlfriend is both hilarious and pathetic.

Huppert spends more time looking at and talking to us than anybody on stage. She even waves away the cigarette smoke so that we’ll get a better look at her face. It’s a showy performance, but it allows the actress to cut through her own steeliness, grab us by the hand and explore together a mother’s madness.

Noth, Smith and Young are uniformly blunt in their approach, and that lack of nuance only helps to distance them even further from Huppert. Trip Cullman’s direction makes the contradictory performance styles work. He also puts on a real spectacle. In addition to Huppert’s manic depression, there’s lots of razzle-dazzle in Ben Stanton’s lighting, Fitz Patton’s sound and original compositions and Lucy Mackinnon’s projections. We hear as well as see the brain synapses as they ignite and set off sparks before completely burning out.

The English translation, from the French, is by Christopher Hampton.

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