Last October a lengthy article in the New Yorker investigated current thinking on the treatment of dementia in nursing homes. Some caregivers hew to cold, hard facts. If an elderly patient’s husband is dead but she has forgotten, she should be reminded, even if it hurts. Others argue that distressed residents may be gently lied to: Your husband’s shopping; he’ll be back soon. With French scribe Florian Zeller, whose arid plays thump with increasing hollowness on these shores, we get both truth and fiction. Between the Alzheimer’s drama The Father (2016) and now The Height of the Storm – both mounted at Manhattan Theatre Club’s Broadway space – Zeller shows old men losing their minds, but also immerses us in their subjective head space.
André (Jonathan Pryce) is an elderly man of letters living in a comfortable house in rural France accompanied (so we think) by his loyal helpmate, Madeleine (Eileen Atkins). If the wife’s name strikes a Proustian note, you’re already a step ahead of the playwright. Through a series of domestic scenes in which chronology and perspective are deliberately blurred, we begin to suspect two things: André is suffering memory loss, and Madeleine – although she interacts with her husband and prepares a meal of mushrooms – may not be there in the flesh.
In order to pad out this metaphysical muddle, Zeller keeps changing rules and clues. André and Madeleine’s daughters – the practical Anne (Amanda Drew) and the flightier Elise (Lisa O’Hare) – are shown in fluid flashbacks and present-day scenes chatting with either parent or both. Their conversations center around organizing their father’s papers, the discovery of his secret diary, and possibly selling the house so he can be moved to a nursing home. Since these scenes are filtered through André’s foggy brain – which may be traumatized by grief – it’s hard to grasp, for most of the play’s 80-minute running time, what is real and what’s not.
For most of the play it seems clear that either husband or wife is dead, and what little dramatic tension lies in figuring out which. One can hardly be bothered. This is a tasteful and dull play, rarely funny or wise, a ghost story with no real thrills or chills, where André’s literary stature must be taken on faith. “There’s nothing to understand,” André grumbles about Anne’s desire to organize his papers. "People who try to understand things are morons.” That’s about as witty as André/Zeller gets, and it elicits a weak chuckle from MTC’s crowd.
Jonathan Kent’s handsomely designed and solidly acted production can’t overcome the inherent banality and inertia of Zeller’s pallid script, which ultimately resolves into widower porn. André finds a card of condolence that came with flowers introduced in the first scene and, finally, his sad situation becomes clear to him (and us, assuming we’re still awake). His love lost but still sitting spookily beside him, our writer frets in his tasteful kitchen (picturesquely designed by Anthony Ward). Hugh Vanstone’s sepulchral lights plunge the couple into morbid shadows. Sound designer Paul Groothuis adds (or was asked to add) superfluous birdsong outside the window to underscore André’s recitation of a Rene Char poem that references “the unknown bird.” It all looks very nice and elegant, but Zeller’s zestless, elliptical dialogue and sketchy characters (maybe translator Christopher Hampton made things worse) barely raises the pulse. Between the shallow, pretentious philosophizing of Zeller and the similar pabulum peddled by Yasmina Reza, I honestly feel bad for French theatergoers.
Perhaps the aging subscribers at Manhattan Theatre Club are delighted by a play in which the elderly parents tell a meddlesome daughter to “fuck off” (it got cheers), but surely such morbid end-of-life tedium would depress them? It depressed me, knowing that there are plenty of great American plays, why should we import foreign mediocrity via London? Pryce and Atkins are marvelous British actors, but they have very little to do here besides peel mushrooms, shuffle across the kitchen floor and look confused.
A great person losing their mind has been grist for great dramatists, from Shakespeare to Pirandello and Alan Bennett. But as I watched André struggle to maintain his hold on sanity, the blandly elegiac and one-note Height of the Storm was already fading from memory.
David Cote is a theater critic, playwright and opera librettist based in New York City.