The only thing to remember about a pile of incomprehensible gibberish called The Mother, which just opened a strictly limited off-Broadway run in New York, is Isabelle Huppert. The vibrant, fearless and dauntingly daring French film star famous for tackling bizarre roles is now working in English in film (Greta) and on stage. She is riveting in both, although if you take the dare and suffer through The Mother, I’m willing to bet you’ll wish you’d stayed home.
Mercifully 85 minutes long with no intermission, the agony doesn’t last long and Huppert enlivens every minute. Played out against the theater’s bare brick walls, the dialogue by French playwright Florian Zeller (translated by Christopher Hampton) is mostly a series of shrieks that are boring enough to be numbing, and the ugly set by Mark Wendland is nothing more than a long white sofa that breaks into sections to allow for multiple shrieks at the same time.
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The play that unravels features Huppert in the dog-eared role of another toxic, middle-aged shrew mangled by life and taking out her vitriol on the short list of battered victims around her. Listed in the playbill as simply “The Mother,” her name is really Anne. When you enter, she is already on stage, silently pretending to read a book. When the lights dim, she pours endless rounds of drinks, serves coffee and screams at her husband, Peter, whom she hates, and her 25-year-old son, Nicolas, whom she adores. There’s also a daughter, who luckily lives far away and is never seen.
That she distrusts her husband (a wasted Chris Noth) and suspects him of having an affair is evident as he packs for a business trip to Buffalo. That she worships her son (Justice Smith) is also obvious when, after ignoring her and failing to answer her daily phone calls, he shows up unexpected. She hopes he has broken up at last with his girlfriend and come back home for good. It is clear from the start that Anne would like to seduce her son herself, and she buys a tight red dress, stiletto heels, black stockings and a battalion of prescription drugs to prove it.
When the girlfriend (Odessa Young) also shows up, she is wearing the same identical red dress. War is announced in four scenes, numbered against the back of the stage. Every scene is repeated and performed with a different slant, and in the egregious absurdity that pads the play out to 85 minutes, the girlfriend is sometimes the girlfriend, who may or may not also be the husband’s mistress, and at other times she is Anne herself. In record time, you will willingly forget to care about all of it and just watch in anticipation for Huppert’s next movie.
Encouraged to whirl around the stage like a dervish—doing everything but Jerry Lewis pratfalls for Trip Cullman, a director as uneven and pretentious as Huppert often is—the star works overtime. She’s lively, she’s animated, and she’s always doing something fascinating with her hands, her mouth and her changing expressions. But her thick French accent, I must admit, gets in the way of her articulation, resulting in sections of dialogue that tangle like smoke from her tongue.
Never mind. The dialogue isn’t worth hearing anyway. What resonates is the fact that Huppert gets quite a workout, rolling around on the floor, splashing cocktails, popping an assortment of pills and shrieking furiously at everyone within earshot. It’s quite a display, and you go away from The Mother baffled but exhausted.