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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  NY Theater Reviews

 
THE HEIGHT OF THE STORM
at Samuel J. Friedman Theatre

THE UNKNOWN BIRD
By JEREMY GERARD

  (L to R) Lucy Cohu, Eileen Atkins, Amanda Drew, Jonathan Pryce and Lisa O’Hare/ Ph: Joan Marcus

Recalling their wedding day, the elderly couple enters the world of allusion.
 
“In those days,” she says, “you always used to recite poems to me. I was thinking about that just now and trying to remember. ... You know something about an unknown bird."
 
“At the height of the storm there’s always a bird to reassure us,” he replies, quoting the French poet René Char. “The unknown bird: It sings and then it flies away.”
 
That 1950 poem serves as both title and portmanteau for Florian Zeller’s new play, which has transferred flawlessly to the Manhattan Theatre Club’s Broadway theater following a celebrated London run, its stars and most of its cast intact. As with Zeller’s previous MTC transfer, The Father, The Height of the Storm is a raging against the dimming, fracturing lights of aging, denial and dementia. Like the earlier play (then, as now, eloquently translated from the French by Christopher Hampton), Height of the Storm takes pleasure in undermining any attempt on our part to fully believe what we have just witnessed with our own eyes and ears.
 
And while The Father cast us on a rocky, battering shore with one disintegrating character brilliantly played by Frank Langella, Storm offers two unfathomably deep, indelibly collaborative performances, by Jonathan Pryce as André, a celebrated novelist settled into arch irrelevance, and Eileen Atkins as Madeleine, the unshakeable garden-loving wife who promised to outlive him.
 
The setting is an exurban refuge outside Paris (Anthony Ward’s high-ceilinged set, capacious and muted by the light dulled by foliage that streams through the windows; Hugh Vanstone handled the crepuscular lighting). At opening, André is staring intently out a window to the garden when his elder daughter Anne (Amanda Drew, perfect) arrives and takes a delivery of flowers with no card to identify the sender. What’s he looking for, she asks several times as he peers though the glass, and did he hear the storm last night?
 
Her intentions are clear. She wants to organize his papers and move him to a home where he’ll be looked after, something he resists with rising insistence – the storm without no match for the storm within. Soon Madeleine arrives, bearing fresh mushrooms, which delights him with its promise of a perfect omelet for his lunch. Accompanying Madeleine is the younger sister, Elise (Lisa O’Hare, the sole newcomer to the cast and splendid), Anne’s temperamental opposite. They spar.
 
Zeller, I’m not the first to point out, emulates Harold Pinter, which is another way of saying he likes playing mind-games with his characters and his audience, packing even a compact work like this (80 fleet minutes under Jonathan Kent’s unhurried direction) with plenty of mystery, divergences, carefully meted out surprises and deft switchbacks.
 
Anne has been going through her father’s papers for a publisher who wishes to bring out an edition of incomplete manuscripts, juvenilia and the like. She also has found, and read, his diary, whose revelations are underscored with the arrival of a character identified only as The Woman (Lucy Cohu, relishing the role of the uninvited stranger likely to have come with sinister intent and a twisty way of going about her business). The creepiness factor is further underscored by Elise’s boyfriend (the fine James Hillier), a deal-hungry real estate agent.
 
By the end, we’re fairly clear who is the bird that sings and flies away, even when doubts have been cast. It’s been something of an unnerving trip into a mental blizzard. Yet the journey has been led with astonishing clarity and humanity by two actors who show immaculate skill in the exquisite delineation of character. More than that, they unleash the unmatchable emotional power, call it a storm, of actors utterly in tune with one another, creating an ineffable natural force.

 


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