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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  NY Theater Reviews

 
THE HEIGHT OF THE STORM
at Samuel J. Friedman Theatre

FADING MEMORY
By JOE DZIEMIANOWICZ

  Eileen Atkins and Jonathan Pryce/ Ph: Joan Marcus

“What are you looking at?” That’s the question that launches Florian Zeller’s mind game of a play, The Height of the Storm, at the Friedman Theatre on Broadway. And over its elusive but quietly affecting 80 minutes, this compact play about marriage, memory and mortality sparks numerous other queries. For instance, who’s alive? And is this a recollection or happening now? The brain churns, in a good way.
 
Translated from the original French by Christopher Hampton and deftly directly by Jonathan Kent (who actually could have nixed the heartstring-tugging violins), this Manhattan Theatre Club production revolves around the relationship of Andre (Jonathan Pryce), a renowned writer whose faculties are fading, and Madeleine (Eileen Atkins), his wife of 50 years.
 
As the play begins, Andre is alone. He stares out the window of the couple’s book-stuffed country home, designed in lived-in detail by Anthony Ward. Perhaps Andre is gazing at the garden where Madeleine would gather vegetables. Vague repeated references by his adult daughters about getting used to a sudden “situation” fuel the notion that Andre has recently become a widower.
 
But in short order, Madeleine strides in, and with a subtle lighting shift, perceptions change. Perhaps she’s the widow. Or maybe not, since Andre and Madeleine converse together, which serves to deepen the mystery. And so it goes until the final fadeout. Aside from its elliptical approach, the story of loss and what’s left behind in a long-term relationship is well-worn dramatic territory. The feeling that we’ve been here before hangs in the air.
 
The play is a variation of other Zeller works seen in New York, including The Mother, which starred Isabelle Huppert as a woman whose mind was unraveling, and The Father, which won a Tony Award for Frank Langella’s portrait of an aging man – also named Andre and battling dementia.
 
As the story moves in circular patterns, its grip occasionally slackens, but the acting is consistently very fine. Lending support are Amanda Drew and Lisa O’Hare as the daughters struggling with aging parents, James Hillier, as Elise’s boyfriend, and Lucy Cohu, who brings sensuality and an unsettling air as a woman whose link to Andre’s past is too unclear and close for comfort.
 
But this play rises and falls on the actors playing the spouses.

Pryce mines every ounce of Andre’s vulnerability, confusion and anger. Atkins is crisp and surprisingly amusing – and with the slightest narrowing of her eyes speaks volumes. Together they are persuasive as a couple who’ve shared half a century together. In the end, Zeller’s work leaves more questions than answers. We never know what Andre is looking at. But there’s no doubt that what audiences sees throughout this Storm are these two bright stars at the height of their powers.

 


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