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Broadway Review: “The Height of the Storm” at Manhattan Theatre Club’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre (Through Sunday November 24, 2019)

Broadway Review: “The Height of the Storm” at Manhattan Theatre Club’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre (Through Sunday November 24, 2019)
Written by Florian Zeller and Translated by Christopher Hampton
Directed by Jonathan Kent
Reviewed by David Roberts
Theatre Reviews Limited

When couples have conversations about aging and approaching the end of their lives, generic yet fundamental questions arise. “What happens if I die before you? “Do you think you will die before I do? What am I going to do without you? “How will I live without you? “Is there anything you want to tell me before one of us dies? Will our children care for the one who survives? What will they do with the one who lives on? These questions are normal, natural, even essential and they become part of discussions for years as aging and dying demand recognition. Florian Zeller has only eighty minutes to accomplish what years often fail to achieve, and he succeeds with the kind of time-warping and mind-bending that have become his trademark.

In the first scene of “The Height of the Storm,” currently running at Manhattan Theatre Club’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, André’s (a haunting and dismantling Jonathan Pryce) daughter Anne (a stoic and meddlesome Amanda Drew) has come to visit her father after her mother’s apparent death to help André organize his papers and encourage the famous writer to “make some concrete progress” about selling the family house and finding more appropriate housing. A sympathy bouquet of flowers arrives, and while Anne brings them to the kitchen table, the gift card drops to the floor. The audience notices this; however, Anne seems not to have noticed. Anne arranges the flowers, the conversation about the house continues, “a key can be heard in the front door,” and Anne’s sister Élise (an occupied and somewhat distant Lisa O’Hare) enters with their mother Madeline (a guarded and wily Eileen Atkins) and the audience goes down the rabbit hole chanting “The Time Warp” lyrics with Riff Raff and Magenta.

In life, in death, and in life beyond death, the human experience is not tidy. With limited success, humans develop a variety of crutches to get through “the height of the storm(s)” that simultaneously enthrall and terrify during the three-score-and-ten years allotted. Likewise, Florian Zeller proposes a universe where ‘tidiness’ is absent. Living and dying coexist with living after death in alternate universes that one can enter and exit either at will or, perhaps, and the request of another who inhabits a different plane of existence at the time. Science fiction writers have proposed such “universes” for decades: Florian Zeller successfully borrows the best from each and adds his own “spin” to allow what’s inside the minds of protagonists André and Madeline spill out in wonderful splotches of light and dark onto the stage.

This might create for some a disquieting state of confusion or might introduce even a heightened level of psychic angst. Synapses snap and sizzle as audience members attempt to make sense of it all. “Who’s dead and who’s not?” “Is anyone dead?” “Is anyone alive?” “Who is Mrs. Schwar (an elusive and spirited Lucy Cohu) – whose name is just one letter shy of darkness itself – and how does she know André?” “What’s with Élise’s boyfriend (a disquieting James Hillier) or is he a realtor?” “Do the two of them have a secret?” “What is the ‘blue house’ and who lived there?” “Who is Georges Dulon?” “Mrs. Schwar alludes to a child. Is the father George or André?” “And who sent the flowers – whose name is on the card André rescues from the floor of the apartment?”

Is it possible that all that is seen and heard in “The Height of the Storm” just a dream? Or, given André’s dementia and his advanced Parkinson’s, is all that is seen and heard hallucinations? Have André and Madeline entered into a suicide pact (there are those mushrooms)? Are both André and Madeline dead or are neither of them dead? Is the action of the play an exercise in magical realism that rehearses the members of the family dealing with the vicissitudes of life and death? Under Jonathan Kent’s keen direction, the entire cast deftly manages to dig deeply into Florian Zeller’s remarkable script giving the audience members the tools to explore the heights of their own storms, delve into their secrets, and face their ghosts with compassion. Anthony Ward’s scenic and costume design, Hugh Vanstone’s shadow-filled lighting design, Paul Groothuis’s sound design, and Gary Yershon’s musical compositions all allow the secrets and ghosts to splendidly coexist.

Florian Zeller’s complex “The Height of the Storm” is a must see this Broadway season. Enjoy the opportunity to witness Jonathan Pryce and Eileen Atkins – two of the greatest actors of their generation – rip open the soul of Florian Zeller’s script. Allow that text to overwhelm you and befuddle you. Be confused. See live and death from a new perspective.

THE HEIGHT OF THE STORM

“The Height of the Storm” features Jonathan Pryce, Eileen Atkins, Lucy Cohu, Amanda Drew, James Hillier, and Lisa O’Hare.

The creative team for “The Height of the Storm” includes Anthony Ward (scenic and costume design), Hugh Vanstone (lighting design), Paul Groothuis (sound design), and Gary Yershon (composer).

“The Height of the Storm” runs at Manhattan Theatre Club’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre (261 West 47th Street) through Sunday November 24, 2019. For the performance schedule and to purchase tickets, visit https://www.manhattantheatreclub.com/. The running time is 80 minutes with no intermission.

Photo (l-r): Lucy Cohu, Eileen Atkins, Amanda Drew, Jonathan Pryce, and Lisa O’Hare in “The Height of the Storm.” Credit: Joan Marcus.
0 Comments | Add Comment | Permalink | Posted by David Roberts on Sunday, September 29, 2019