REVIEW: Florian Zeller’s The Height of the Storm Offers Dementia in a Luxury Setting

The Height of the Storm at Manhattan Theatre Club. (Photo by Joan Marcus)

DF: A popular if snootily xenophobic stereotype suggests the French—Parisians especially—favor style over substance. Like all clichés, it’s regressive and simplistic, but it certainly finds life in The Height in the Storm, written by a Paris-born writer, and set in the city’s luxe environs. Florian Zeller’s play reminded me of Oeufs en gelée: it shakes and quivers, it looks fancy, and ultimately, it’s not worth the trouble it took to make it—nor, frankly, to see it.

CK: Height of the Storm represents the most insidious category of European imports. It’s essentially a sudoku puzzle dressed up as a play, and lent a patina of sophistication by plummy English accents and tastefully shabby decor. (The French kitchen set, complete with double-oven and visible Le Creuset cookware, is designed by Anthony Ward.)

DF: A dead giveaway for the pretentiousness of this exercise is its Englishness. Remember, the play is by a French writer, about French people—the central character names are Madeleine and André. But what do we get on Broadway? An imported British production, with two stars—Jonathan Pryce and Dame Eileen Atkins—who could not seem more of the Empire if they were playing Noël Coward. 

CK: This production originated in the West End, where the combined fire-power of Pryce and Atkins together must have seemed like the spirit of England incarnate. Add to that a translation by Christopher Hampton and direction by Jonathan Kent, and you have an evening expertly calibrated to drive the PBS faithful wild.  

DF: As it clearly was doing at the Friedman.

CK: During the several brief scene changes, I half-expected Laura Linney to walk onstage and tell the audience that, for a tax-deductible donation of $75, we could receive our own commemorative tote bag. 

DF: So, let’s talk about what the play seems ostensibly, at least, to be about: the ravages of aging, as embodied particularly in André’s dementia. Although it isn’t entirely clear, much of the murky perception of events seems to come through André’s unreliable point of view, which mixes up timelines and relationships. Thus, we the audience must attempt to piece together fragments about the family dynamic, which also includes two daughters (Amanda Drew and Lisa O’ Hare), a mistress (Lucy Cohu), and a no-nonsense but loving wife (Atkins, of course—she’s practically patented this persona).

CK: Underneath the stylish digs and the seemingly deep subject matter lies a profound emptiness. Height of the Storm is one of several plays, along with Zeller’s earlier work, The Father, and Kenneth Lonergan’s The Waverly Gallery, to explore the effects of dementia on a family.

DF: After last season’s rapturously-praised Broadway production of Waverly, I opined that Lonergan’s play, while often very moving, lacked awareness of its privileged perspective. Well, Height of the Storm makes Waverly look worthy of a Nobel Peace Prize.

CK: It bothered me that the characters in Waverly—white, wealthy, well-connected New Yorkers—behaved as though the responsibility of caring for an aging matriarch was the greatest imposition they could ever face.

DF: But at least that play tacitly acknowledged that the family had unusual resources. Here, it’s as if any other world besides wealth and sophistication is barely even imaginable. Seeing Zeller’s exercise in navel gazing on the eve of impeachment feels like the theatrical equivalent of fiddling while Rome burns.

CK: Yes, wouldn’t it be lovely if we could all escape into this elegant world, dementia or not? Although if we did, we might have to spend time with these horrible people, next to which a vacation at the Trump White House might be preferable. 

DF: It’s all the more frustrating because, on its face, the production is so well done. As it’s meant to be, the show is a tour de force for Atkins and Pryce, and both deliver the goods. The other actors are also fine, and Kent’s direction is evocative. But to me, there wasn’t a moment when any of it actually mattered.  

CK: I felt less enthusiastic about Atkins and especially Pryce, both of whom seem to be coasting on their reputations. And even less than 24 hours later, I can’t recall a single interesting specific choice by Drew or O’Hare. The most vivid performance of the evening comes from Cohu, who breathes welcome life into her single energetic scene.

DF: I think it’s not merely coincidental that Cohu’s character is also the least refined. So, Cameron… why don’t you bring it home?

CK: The Height of the Storm scores some major prestige points, but in the end, it’s barely a tempest in a teapot.

DF: Ba-dum-bum. 

The Height of the Storm plays through November 24th. For more information, visit the Manhattan Theatre Club website.

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