By Lucy Komisar
The story is contemporary, subtle and surreal. Anne (a brilliant Isabelle Huppert), who has done nothing in life except be a mother, plays out scenarios about her husband, her son and his girlfriend. The very inventive Florian Zeller writes this not as a narrative that moves smoothly through time, but as a time-shifting, repeating replay of the same events. Under Trip Cullman‘s clear, austere direction, that becomes smartly, vividly apparent.
It‘s a fascinating take on the disintegration of a woman who has no other identity than as the mother of a son. And when he moves out to live with a girlfriend, she is distraught, neurotic, then, finally, crazy. The smothering mother turns out in her fantasy to be smothered by her son.
It starts in a surreal setting dominated by a very long white leather couch of the sort that might fit in an office building lobby or a hotel, but not anybody‘s house or apartment. She is seated there, motionless, staring as if seeing nothing, as the audience arrives. As the play begins, she complains that her son never calls. (No joke here!) Then she targets her husband, Pierre/Peter (Chris Noth). “Where were you?”
“In the office.”
“I called the office.”
“They told you where, I was at a meeting.”
And he comes back: “You don‘t do anything. You have no interests. You have to find something to do.”
Of course, he is right. She complains, “Everybody is gone. I‘m in my own foreign country. He‘s cut me out of his life.” She is 47, her son Nicolas (Justice Smith), is 25. She declares, “I should never have had children with a man who has meetings and seminars.” She also has a daughter, but doesn’t talk about her.
Her face is scowling, grimacing. She talks in the high-pitched tone that French women often speak. (Pet peeve: I hate when women chirp as if their voices hadn‘t changed since they were children. Do they think it’s feminine to sound like 6-year-olds? Did their brains change? Also happens in this country.) Certainly, in this era, she is unsympathetic. A throwback to the fifties.
The scene has been labeled “Un,” which is one in French. And then “Un” flashes again and we see another take. She is hysterical about losing her son. She repeats to Pierre, “You had a good day?” and then is abusive.
Then “Deux,” two. Her son has come back to his room in the night. And Pierre is going going away for four days to a seminar in Buffalo. Clearly, she doesn’t believe that’s his destination. She fantasizes about murdering Nicolas. When he comes into the room, she holds him, “Did she cheat on you? I‘m sure she slept with another boy and you found out about it.” Huppert‘s complex, changing face now shows sheer nastiness.
Then “Deux” again, events are repeated, but different.
In “Trois,” she wears a short sexy red dress; she is seductive. She throws herself at Nicolas.
Then “Trois” again, and the girlfriend ‰lodie/Emily (Odessa Young) in the same red dress comes to see Nicolas. Does Anne conjure up ‰lodie as herself? Nicolas leaves. “Are you abandoning me?”
“Quatre,” four. She is in a hospital bed after taking sleeping pills. Nicolas tells her he will strangle her and he does. Or does he? Because she wakes up. What is true, what is imagined?
This is a very feminist play about a woman whose life is destroyed because she has no other existence but through her son. It reminded me of the enigmatic cinema of the great French Nouvelle Vague. It is the perfect platform for an actress as subtle, complicated and accomplished as Huppert. And a fine work by Florian Zeller.
“The Mother.” Written by Florian Zeller; translated by Christopher Hampton; directed by Trip Cullman. Atlantic Theater Company, 336 West 20th Street, New York City. 866-811-4111. Opened March 11, 2019; Closes April 13, 2019. Running time 90 minutes. 4/9/19.