The Height of the Storm

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Photo: Joan Marcu Review
As those theatergoers who’ve seen French dramatist Florian Zeller’s last two American imports – “The Father” and “The Mother” – are aware, traditional theatrical concepts such as time, place and reality are far less important to the playwright than examining the human condition. So be prepared to get back on the existential merry-go-round if you check out “The Height of the Storm” (once more translated by Christopher Hampton), now being presented by Manhattan Theatre Club at the Samuel J. Friedman’s Theater. And you should definitely take a chance on this often fascinating (and occasionally vexing) work, which seems a little less bumpy and dizzying than his previous roller-coaster rides.

In part, that’s due to Jonathan Kent’s handsome production; there’s nothing abstract about Anthony Ward’s elegant version of a French country house, and the sublime lighting of Hugh Vanstone should be remembered at Tony Awards time. But in larger part, it’s the excellent performances of an expert cast, led by the irreplaceable Jonathan Pryce and Eileen Atkins, that should make you purchase a ticket.

On its most basic level, the play focuses on a long-married couple, Andre (Pryce), a celebrated author, his devoted wife Madeleine (Atkins), and their grown daughters, the no-nonsense Anne (an excellent Amanda Drew) and the sweet if somewhat flighty Elise (a wonderful Lisa O’Hare). However, for the show’s 80-minute running time, you’re kept deliberately off-balance as to whether everything onstage actually takes place in the same weekend, and far more importantly (yes, spoiler alert, as they say), if both their parents are actually alive, or if one or both are just “living” in the memories of those still walking the earth. Zeller also throws a couple of wild cards into the deck: two characters known only as The Woman (a zesty Lucy Cohu) and The Man (a properly oily James Hillier) to complicate circumstances even further.

At all times during the show, Andre appears to be suffering from rather advanced dementia, which allows Pryce to give us a mini-version of King Lear (a role which he played in England in 2002). He howls and bellows; he turns unexpectedly sweet and childlike; he registers complete confusion; he shakes and shuffles; in fact, he pretty much checks off all the boxes of Shakespeare’s great patriarch except shedding his clothes during a storm (since the one in the title happens overnight). As one might expect, Pryce is completely commanding, so much so that one instantly realizes just how deeply Andre’s absence would be felt by his family.

Meanwhile, Atkins, the least “grande” of England’s “grande dames,” is in perfect counterpoint; she’s a down-to-earth, self-sufficient and mostly calm presence (although perfectly capable of the uttering the f-word when it suits her) who clearly is the glue that holds her sometimes fractured family together.

Indeed, when Madeleine makes a speech late in stressing that she doesn’t need anyone – especially her children – to make decisions for her, the mostly elderly audience at a recent matinee applauded loudly. At a time where so many theatergoers are personally experiencing the dilemmas associated with aging (or aging parents), the play proves to be the height of topicality.
By Brian Scott Lipton

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Open/Close Dates
Opening 9/24/2019
Closing 11/24/2019

Theatre Info
Samuel J. Friedman Theatre
261 West 47th Street
New York, NY 10036