Review of The Mother, starring Isabelle Huppert, at Atlantic Theater Company

  • Our critic's rating:
    March 12, 2019
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    The audience enters the space at the Atlantic Theater Company's Linda Gross Theater to find a woman sitting at the edge of an endless couch, waiting. She waits as we take our seats. She waits as we finish our conversations. She waits as the lights begin to dim. She waits as her husband enters. And then The Mother begins.

    The Mother, Florian Zeller’s play and companion to his previous Molière-award-winning The Father, is a tragic, humorous and disorienting trip into the mind of a mother who, in gaining distance from her adult children, begins to lose her standing in reality.

    Zeller’s piece, translated into English by Christopher Hampton and smartly directed by Trip Cullman, takes a deeper look at a matriarch who dedicated her life to raising her two children and making a home for her family. Now that she is left with an empty nest, she feels their absence profoundly. “Nobody needs me anymore,” she mourns in the play’s first scene. To deal with the tragedy of losing her sense of purpose, the Mother has turned to pills, which slowly chip away at reality both for character and audience alike, taking us ever deeper into the Mother’s brain and its scary web of fears and neuroses.

    As the Mother begins to lose her sense of reality, we’re suddenly no longer aware of what is true and what Isabelle Huppert’s character has constructed. Is she speaking to her husband or her son? Did she actually say that out loud? Is her son really there? Is this her daughter, or her son’s girlfriend, or her husband’s lover? The Mother is played expertly by Ms. Huppert, who commits humor to the role, exhausting every possible solution and fighting back every step of the way. The other supporting characters, titled Father (Chris Noth), Son (Justice Smith) and Girl (Odessa Young) become increasingly amorphous, shifting from characters into ideas; anxiety incarnate; gestalts built of forms, words, and the Mother’s suspicions.

    This breakdown of the tangible is also supported by the show’s design. The scenic design by Mark Wendland is clean, almost sterile, the only hints of color being orange pill bottles discarded in small colonies under this couch, that table. Lighting and projection designers (Ben Stanton and Lucy Mackinnon, respectively) juxtapose clean, angular highlights on the warm brick walls of the theater that slowly break into fragmented pieces and blur around the edges. Fitz Patton’s sound design and compositions combine control and sensibility with musical feedback, radio static, and other noises that feel out of place within the piece’s soundscape, raising a hair on the arm and filling silent moments with thought-numbing sound.

    The Mother is a piece that will give you much to ponder upon leaving. A strong piece overall, however, there are moments when the humor teeters on being too uncomfortable – the Mother’s affection for her son manifests itself in borderline erotic physical behavior towards him. Regardless, you will leave the theater trying to piece together the narrative for yourself, and good luck with having much success. But this is the success of the production, you leave with more questions than answers, more confusions than clarities. And, for those like myself who have left the nest, the piece will also make you want to call your mother.

    (Photo by Ahron R. Foster)

    "In The Mother, translated from the French by Christopher Hampton and directed by Trip Cullman, Ms. Huppert plays a different kind of dangerous woman, one who is more of a threat to herself than to anyone else. But since it is still Ms. Huppert we’re talking about, Anne’s interior demons assume the external ferocity of a kamikaze mission. It is not a tidy performance. And it almost rips the seams out of Mr. Zeller’s carefully measured study of one woman’s disintegration. But there’s no denying that Ms. Huppert’s Anne is compulsively watchable, even as she drags you, squirming, clean out of your comfort zone."
    Ben Brantley for New York Times

    "A so-called "black farce," this downer of a play is only fitfully funny and almost completely lacking in feeling. By the end, it's hard to tell what's actually happening and what's in Anne's head, but there’s a good chance that your own brain will have checked out long before."
    Raven Snook for Time Out New York

    "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 does 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."
    Robert Hofler for The Wrap

    "No disrespect to the three very capable actors orbiting the star supernova in The Mother, but you can't take your eyes off Isabelle Huppert. That applies whether she's stretching her lithe frame like a cat across the sectional sofa, interrogating her possibly philandering husband with withering disdain, dancing like a pharmaceutically addled flapper in the coquettish red party dress she hopes to wear to his funeral or simply contemplating the cigarette she's smoking, seeming to regard it as both stimulant and irritant. The great Huppert is such a uniquely fascinating stage creature she almost makes it possible to overlook the stiff mechanics of Florian Zeller's psychodrama and its familiar structural tricks."
    David Rooney for Hollywood Reporter

    "In the end, this turns out to be an upsetting play rather than an engaging one, and if it weren’t for Huppert’s mesmerizing performance, it might send you out of the theater and screaming into the night."
    Marilyn Stasio for Variety