Florian Zeller’s play, The Mother, is subtitled “a black farce.” If that conjures images of slamming doors and maids running around frantically in their underwear, forget it. The frenzied activity in Trip Cullman’s production is almost entirely provided by the great French actress Isabelle Huppert, and although she strips down to a slip and garters at one point to put on a sexy red dress, it’s not at all lubricious or funny.
At the outset, Huppert, star of European high-art films, such as the current Greta, Caché, Elle, and White Material, sits on a long white sofa on Mark Wendland’s highly stylized set: the sofa spans the stage and seats 15. Underneath it are scattered prescription-drug bottles; nearby are only a few other accoutrements: a large ornate frame to represent a mirror, a drinks table, a couple of white vinyl-and-chrome hassocks to match the Brobdingnagian sofa, all with the Atlantic’s exposed brick walls and fire doors visible.
Huppert is uneasily reading a book as The Man (Chris Noth) enters—it’s a conceit of Zeller’s to give the roles symbolic names: The Man, The Woman, etc., although their dialogue includes character names: Huppert is Anne, Noth is David. They have The Son (a.k.a. Nicolas), and there is The Girl, whom Nicolas lives with.
David enters to a frosty reception: “So, where were you?” Anne asks. He is late, and she is fuming; her eyes shoot daggers, and she badgers him in a passive-aggressive manner. She expected him much earlier; she suspects he is having an affair. She grouses and simmers; nothing he says is right. Noth’s exasperated David shows a great deal of patience, as if he were dealing with a medical situation rather than mere temperament.
Father: Good day?
Mother: Why are you asking me that? When you know the answer.
Father: Wanted to know.
Mother: You’re interested?
Mother: You know perfectly well my day was shitty.
Then Zeller pulls a switch à la David Ives. A projection of Un (French for one), which started the play, appears again on the upstage wall, to the sound (by designer Fitz Patton) of a film, and the scene starts anew, with variations—each of the play’s three “acts” has three versions. Anne complains that Nicolas is no longer calling her as often, but she also admits to leaving a lot of messages on his machine. By Scene Deux, the next morning, Nicolas (Justice Smith) has arrived in the dead of night after a fight with The Girl, and Anne behaves more strangely. She cuddles up to her bare-chested boy, and strokes his torso in a distinctly unmaternal fashion. She pulls his arms around her, nuzzles him, and strips in front of him to try on that red dress. She also badmouths Emily, his girlfriend. It’s enough to puzzle Nicolas, of course, and he seeks David’s counsel:
Son: What’s the matter with her?
Father: She’s... She’s still fragile.
Son: I thought things were getting better.
The vague medical reason is never explained, but it’s boosted by other information: Anne speaks of Nicolas’s brothers at one point, and he corrects her—he’s her only son. At one point, she confesses to David offhandedly: “Sometimes I have dreams of murdering you. They’re my favorite dreams.”
But the most persuasive interpretation is not clinical at all: Huppert is playing a mother’s unbridled id. Her character, The Mother, is all mothers. Perhaps the incestuous aspect is a reach (or maybe most moms can tamp down their inner Phaedra), but Anne’s clinging to and smothering of Nicolas, her desire to be close to him, her jealousy of Emily, and her urging him to go out on the town with her as his date, are maternal instincts stretched to morbidity. (She barely mentions her daughter Sara, except to disparage her. Meanwhile, Nicolas has a scene that reinforces the notion of the subconscious being foregrounded, when he puts his hands around Anne’s neck. Fleeting matricidal thoughts become full-fledged enactment in The Mother.)
Lighted noirishly by Ben Stanton, Huppert as Anne is extraordinary. She sprawls, dances, writhes, cuddles, collapses and rolls on the floor—she’s always on the move. After Emily arrives to leave a letter for Nicolas, Anne rips it up—the battle for the boy is Strindbergian in its primal power. The other performers are fine and give her solid support, but The Mother, even when it stretches credibility and flirts with incest, is a powerhouse vehicle for an actress, and Huppert delivers.
Trip Cullman’s production of The Mother plays through April 13 at the Linda Gross Theater Company (336 West 20th St.). Evening performances are at 7 p.m. Tuesday and 8 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday; matinees are at 2 p.m. Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday. For tickets and information, call OvationTix at (866) 811-4111 or visit atlantictheater.org.