By Florian Zeller; Translated by Christopher Hampton; Directed by Jonathan Kent
Produced by Manhattan Theatre Club
Runs through 11.17.19
Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 West 47th Street
by Dan Rubins on 9.25.19
Eileen Atkins and Jonathan Pryce in The Height of the Storm. Photo by Joan Marcus.
BOTTOM LINE: The Height of the Storm is a disorienting escape room of a play, and even its astounding stars struggle to crack the code.
One of my most amusing theatre-going experiences took place in 2007 at a performance of Adam Bock’s quasi-dystopian thriller The Receptionist, produced by Manhattan Theatre Club. Following the show, an usher planted herself in the center aisle and announced that she would be available to explain the plot of the play to any audience members who had gotten lost along the way. A number of befuddled-looking folks gratefully took her up on the offer.
If anyone reading this knows how to reach this usher, please let her know that Manhattan Theatre Club may be requiring her post-show services again, this time following performances of the London-to-Broadway transfer of The Height of the Storm. Then again, maybe bringing super-usher out of retirement isn't necessary: the murkiness of Florian Zeller’s new bite-size melodrama seems fully intentional.
What is surely not intentional, though, is the way the French playwright’s aggressive obscuring act threatens to steal center stage from the show’s supreme stars, Jonathan Pryce and Eileen Atkins. They play a couple, André and Madeleine, fifty years into their marriage. Their two daughters, serious Anne (Amanda Drew) and flighty Élise (Lisa O’Hare), have come home for a funeral. Or so it seems. (The same characters—or at least characters with the same names in the same family constellation—appear in a few other Zeller plays, including The Father, which opened on Broadway three years ago.)
Is someone onstage already dead? Is someone offstage dead? Is everyone dead? That’s probably up to the person sitting next to you. My companion and I discovered that we had vastly different interpretations of the plot: where I saw eliding points of view and different sliding doors of memory, she saw alternative timelines side by side.
That sort of Rorschach effect could make for an interesting dramatic challenge. But Zeller demands such hard, constant work from the audience in order to piece the puzzle together that The Height of the Storm becomes a play inside a conceit rather than a conceit inside a play. Sometimes his characters seem to be onstage only in order to deliver clues about the play’s structure. Rather than speaking like humans (maybe Christopher Hampton’s low-sparks translation is partly to blame), they talk in shrouded obfuscations, every line a “Naah, naah, not gonna tell you!” to the audience. Take this exchange, for example:
MADELEINE: In these circumstances, that’s what people do.
ANDRÉ: In what circumstances?
ANDRÉ: In what circumstances? What are you talking about?
ÉLISE: You know very well.
It’s enough to distract you from the glorious performers trying their best to get you to look up from the Rubik’s Cube, just as thinking about the play’s labyrinthine nature distracted me from praising Pryce and Atkins as I tried to do three paragraphs ago.
Let me not lose the plot here: they’re extraordinary. Pryce, a sensational Shylock for Shakespeare’s Globe three years ago, finds prickly humor in a pause and gutting terror in a single stammered line as André simultaneously loses his bearings and insists he’s never been better. Dame Eileen, meanwhile, gets some crisp Wildean exchanges, and Madeleine offers real fierce tenderness, or maybe tender fierceness, towards André. The pair never misplays a moment onstage, but, because in this world no relationship—even theirs—has permission to cohere into a comprehensible whole, those moments only string together into a superb highlight reel. Though each burst of emotion they play (grief, confusion, joy) feels real, there are no sinews connecting the emotional beats or providing context for who these two people really are to each other.
The remainder of the cast, especially the underwritten daughters, don’t get the chance to ignite their wispy banter. Lucy Cohu makes the most of her single scene as a woman from André’s past. Or maybe André just thinks she’s a woman from his past. Whoever she is, it’s a shrewdly layered performance.
Jonathan Kent’s spacious staging leans heavily on the designers to clear up some questions the playwright would rather leave muddy. The proportions of the family's house are all wrong. The walls stretch far too far up, a shelf of photo albums permanently out of reach. A huge mirror on a hallway wall begins too far off the ground to capture a reflection. In this house (by set designer Anthony Ward), accessing the images that might provide the purest pathway to untarnished memories or unvarnished reality is a startling impossibility. And in the play’s final moments, Hugh Vanstone’s heartbreaking lighting makes a gesture more moving than anything in Zeller’s text.
Oh, speaking of those final moments: in the spirit of The Height of the Storm, I haven’t told you everything. Pryce and Atkins do manage, somehow, to triumph over the play’s brambles in a gentle epilogue. For the first time, the contours of the couple’s five decades together come crisply into focus. The warm delight of their comfortable, urgently caring rapport finally replaces any dull ache for a meatier play (this one’s fully cooked at just under 90 minutes) into which the pair could sink their teeth.
“We’re fine just the two of us, aren’t we?” Madeleine asks.
In circumstances like these, we know the answer very well.
(The Height of the Storm plays at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 West 47th Street, through November 17, 2019. The running time is 90 minutes, no intermission. Performances are Tuesdays at 7; Wednesdays at 2 and 7; Thursdays and Fridays at 8; Saturdays at 2 and 8; and Sundays at 2. Tickets are $79-$169 and are available at telecharge.com or by calling 212-239-6200. For more information visit heightofthestorm.com and manhattantheatreclub.com.)
The Height of the Storm is by Florian Zeller, translated by Christopher Hampton. Directed by Jonathan Kent. Set and Costume Design by Anthony Ward. Lighting Design by Hugh Vanstone. Sound Design by Sam Groothuis. Composer is Gary Yershon. Stage Manager is Jereme Kyle Lewis.
The cast is Jonathan Pryce, Eileen Atkins, Lisa O'Hare, Amanda Drew, Lucy Cohu, and James Hillier.