Review of The Height of the Storm, starring Jonathan Pryce & Eileen Atkins, on Broadway

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    Date:
    September 25, 2019
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    The Height of the Storm, currently celebrating its American premiere at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, courtesy of Manhattan Theatre Club, offers no flying broomsticks, no animatronic beasts — no puppets either. Playwright Florian Zeller again writes a family drama with as much unsaid as said, as much ambiguity as clarity; that is, it feels like the real life of a real family at a crisis point. In this case, a long married couple, who more than sniff the end at hand, struggle with that. Their two daughters intend to ease that ending, but mostly act out their nursery conflicts.

    The story surrounds the legacy of a great talent, now lost in a dithering rage, and the clear-eyed resignation of the wife, as the couple engages us in the mythology of their long, perfect marriage.

    Zeller’s script is untidy in the way life is. He sets up gambits that don’t resolve. He leads us down rabbit holes. He forces the audience, if not to the edge of its seat, at least, to attend! He sows some artful confusion, even about who’s with us on stage and who is not. He forces attention to the words, to the script; that is, one listens to the words and re-thinks. Very little here operates on one level.

    Director Jonathan Kent is in every sense a co-conspirator — forcing us to puzzle through who is actually on stage, who’s struggle is already resolved. And I cannot remember a production in which the lighting played such a crucial role. Characters spring to life and are obliterated by lighting director Huge Vanstone’s attentions.

    Eileen Atkins and Jonathan Pryce are the leads — Madeleine and André — which, in itself, is enough to justify a ticket. Atkins gives Madeleine nuance. She is the tender bride, the stalwart wife, a woman who — as she tells us more than once — keeps her promises. She tells her interfering daughter to “fuck off” — odd choice but a welcome surprise. She sees her husband in extremis and expects to comfort him, to embrace him in death. Atkins is so good that, even as she stands in shadow, stage right, you see her shrink at another character’s suggestion of Andre’s long-ago infidelity. Pryce is never less that fabulous to watch. He is not so much upstaged by Atkins as restrained by the character. His André is confused and frightened and longing for what has passed for a big share of the 80-minute performance. Pryce has to hold that line and so has fewer layers to offer.

    Zeller writes in French then turns it over to Christopher Hampton to settle the script into English —amazing in itself. That said, my multilingual guest pointed out the French title does capture the substance more grippingly and poetically: “Avant de s’envoler” - literally: “Before flying away.” (But this was likely a marketing, not an artistic, decision.)

    (Photo by Joan Marcus)

    "So far, three of the French playwright Florian Zeller’s plays have made it to New York: The FatherThe Mother and now The Height of the Storm, which for symmetry might have been called The Father or the Mother. Symmetry matters with Mr. Zeller because little else does; empathy and catharsis, those old theatrical colors, are not in his paint box. Paradox and cleverness attempt to fill their places, along with a surface playability that is catnip to stars."
    Jesse Green for New York Times

    "Translated from the original French by Christopher Hampton and staged with commendable directness by Jonathan Kent, The Height of the Storm might seem merely a clever exercise were it not for its highly distinguished stars. In the flashier role, Pryce deftly navigates André’s slippery landscape of paranoia, confusion, shame, loneliness and anger, while Atkins—like Madeleine—provides staunch, secure, unfussy support. If there is a picture to this puzzle after all, it is the portrait of a marriage that stretches on till death do them part and beyond."
    Adam Feldman for Time Out New York

    "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."
    Thom Geier for The Wrap

    "The merciless forces of dementia, anxiety and depression, respectively, torment the protagonists of Florian Zeller's family trilogy, The FatherThe Mother and The Son, intricate dramatic puzzles in which the French playwright deftly drops the audience inside the confusion of his characters' heads. All those states of psychological distress exert their cruel influence in The Height of the Storm. If the author's bag of tricks is becoming familiar and the wispy drama is too fragmented to be fully satisfying, the commanding performances of Jonathan Pryce and Eileen Atkins and the meticulous direction of Jonathan Kent nonetheless make this an affecting elegy."
    David Rooney for Hollywood Reporter

    "In this Manhattan Theatre Club production of Florian Zeller's The Height of the Storm, Jonathan Pryce gives an achingly sensitive performance as Andre, possibly “the greatest writer of his generation.”  (We also met a man named Andre in the French playwright’s previous drama, The Father, a formidable figure as played on Broadway in 2016 by Frank Langella.) Here, Andre is a recent widower unable to cope with — or even bear to acknowledge — the death of his beloved wife, Madeleine, endowed with down-to-earth grace and emotional depth by the great Eileen Atkins."
    Marilyn Stasio for Variety