Thursday, February 28, 2019

Put them all together, they spell…: Huppert in ‘The Mother’

Huppert, official portrait for
The Mother (photo: Peter Lindbergh)
When you have the opportunity to see one of the finest actresses in the world in live performance, you should jump at the chance. Especially if she is Isabelle Huppert, and even if she appears in a play as obvious and belabored as The Mother, currently at the Atlantic Theater Company in Manhattan (now through April 13).

Huppert is a miraculous performer who seems to choose her roles on the basis of how much they will challenge her and how complicated — and tormented — these women are. In the process she has created an incomparable portrait gallery that gets better with each year, even when the films or plays she stars in are significant only because she is in them.

Such is the case with The Mother, a modernist empty-nester lament in which the titular character, portrayed perfectly by Huppert, has lost her mind because her children have grown up and left home. The unseen daughter isn’t that much of a loss to her, but her son… well, therein lies the drama (and dark comedy and sleek stagecraft).

The opening scene finds Anne (Huppert), a jumpy wife, greeting her husband as he comes home from work with accusations and insults. Then we see the same scene in a less contentious mode. That pattern continues for the whole play — first we view events from Anne’s shattered perspective and then we see a more sedate version. Anne is a Frenchwoman living in the U.S. (one assumes the change in the play was made to accommodate Huppert’s strong French accent) with a busy workaholic husband (Chris Noth), who may be having an affair or just stays overtime at work to avoid Anne.

Their daughter is never seen and barely referred to, but her son (played by African American actor Justice Smith) is her pride and joy — and she is overjoyed when he argues with his girlfriend (Odessa Young) and ends up back at the family home.

Anne’s version of things includes the characters making declarative statements about themselves that are remarkably unsubtle — this is one of the play’s surprises that rather quickly tires itself out. Anne tells her hubby “I’ve been had” (in reference to getting married and having kids), the son’s girlfriend proclaims “I’m young and beautiful,” and the son announces to his mother at one point that he will hug her very tightly (the second half of that declaration would constitute a spoiler — and is subsequently undone when we leave Anne’s mind).

One could blame the fact that The Mother is a translated play for the intermittently stodgy dialogue, but Florian Zeller is a critically lauded French playwright and the translator here is Christopher Hampton, who makes a specialty of adapting such things to English. One can take comfort in the fact that the play is only 85 minutes long and the central reason for attending, Huppert, is sitting onstage as the audience files in. (She is reading a book, hides her face behind said book, making mischievous faces and yawning every so often.)

The stagecraft adds to the play’s general air of discomfort. Drug vials and bottles of wine are hidden below and behind an ultra-modern couch, projected signs on the back wall give us the numbers of the versions of scenes (“un,” “deux,” “trois”), and a microphone is situated at the edge of the stage so that Anne can deliver a nervous speech about her son (useful here as a dodge to shift our attention from the movement of furniture on the set).

The cast of The Mother: Smith, Huppert, Young, Noth.
The performers make the most of the material and add emotion to what is an overly simplistic scenario. Odessa Young admirably plays the son’s girlfriend and two other fantasy figures in Anne’s visions. Justice Smith has the most difficult role, as the barely sketched son who primarily tries to avoid his mother’s overly Freudian embrace (at one point the very drunk Anne does indeed straddle her son on the floor). Chris Noth lends shading to the “Father,” who is alternately a caring husband and an adulterous prick.

Huppert has inhabited this terrain before, as an incestuous mom in Christophe Honoré’s Ma Mere (2004). Here she works on several levels, being at once neurotic, stubborn, caring, cruel, schizo, and also very sexy. Huppert is one of the most fearless performers currently working, and here that includes playing a 47-year-old mother who dons a red dress and hose and garters onstage at one point.

As I noted the last time I reviewed Huppert onstage, she is the primary reason to see The Mother. In this case, the “queen of meltdowns” plays a woman who is already on the edge when the play begins.

As she has done so often onscreen, she exquisitely incarnates a woman who is on a downward spiral and in the process inspires admiration for her craft, if not deep sympathy for the character.

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