Broadway: Two masters of the British stage come to Manhattan

‘The Height Of The Storm’




French playwright Florian Zeller, well known in New York theater for his plays, “The Father” (Frank Langella) and “The Mother” (Isabelle Huppert), tells stories in a most outré fashion. Currently, “The Height of The Storm,” translated by Christopher Hampton, at the Manhattan Theatre Club, stars two masters of the British stage, Jonathan Pryce and Eileen Atkins.

That Zeller’s plays are lodged somewhere in his characters’ psychic machinations and projections makes the presence of such accomplished actors essential. To create a fundamental, believable reality, dispense of it like soap bubbles, reinvent it with memories, and score it with infidelities in the way Zeller’s characters do, requires the unshakeable confidence and skill of stage icons the size of Atkins and Pryce.

In “Height of The Storm,” Zeller addresses his ongoing interest in the life of the mysterious mind, through Andre’s Kafkaesque trials. As portrayed by a nearly wild and disheveled Pryce, Andre cannot accept what is going on around him. He’s tortured from beginning to end by the demands his daughters and so-called friends are putting on him to move into housing more suitable for the elderly. Perhaps, he’s suffering from dementia.

Finally, as he sees reality falling away from him — in spite of his vigorous denial — he implores them, “What is my position here? What is my position? My position! What is my position here? My position. Here. What is it?”

To make matters more complicated, Andre is a writer, a builder of fictions, and a diarist who declares his infidelities in his personal journals. At times, it appears that he may already be in the grave. At others, that he’s just harboring secrets, or mourning the loss of his wife, Madeline. Regardless, he fears exposure and reprisal in the same way he fears death. His demented mental state, and his paranoia, both appear to be a way of getting back.

In contrast, Atkins portrays Madeline, with a taut and balanced air. Attending to the vegetable garden, preparing their favorite omelet with mushrooms (which “can go either way”), and weeding out her daughters’ complaints are the spine of her daily life. While lithe, she is also reflective.

Like Andre, Madeline is opaque. Is she the one who has died, and therefore the cause of Andre’s existential grief? Or, is she the memory around which life continues to gyrate? One never knows.

What is important is the fact that together they make a whole person. Otherwise, who knows. Without the cocoon of marriage who would they be, what would they do, how would they manage? These are questions both the audience and the other characters also have.

Surrounded by a well-honed ensemble, Amanda Drew and Lisa O’Hare as their daughters, Lucy Cohu as The Woman and James Hillier as The Man, the old couples’ secrets remain under shrouds. Try as they may, or as Andre fears they may, we never really pierce the mysteries that are here.

Anthony Ward’s scenic design of a warm country kitchen, and Hugh Vanstone’s nuanced lighting create an intense environment, cast in shadows, and often foggy. Director Jonathan Kent masterfully leads the way through the land mines Zeller has put in place.

 

L.O.V.E.R.

What woman doesn’t dream of having her own washing machine? Usually, however, it isn’t a momentous issue — at least not in the way Lois Robbins’s claims it to be in her solo show, “L.O.V.E.R.”

Indeed, her tale of serial monogamy begins with the washing machine she masturbated on as a child. Discovering how to turn on the spin cycle was an epiphany. Finding the right husband was more challenging. As she tells us later in the 90-minute performance piece, “Good sex isn’t about what’s between your legs. It’s between your ears.”

As is her wont, Robbins’s autobiographical solo show is light-hearted and entertaining. Her ability to vehiculate in spite of obstacles, health scares, bad relationships, and nasty men make her an endearing presence, and one with whom we can readily identify.

Woven into her recollections are recognizable patterns of abuse, such as many women talk about these days. In her case, a manipulative father who made her afraid of men, while making her feel that she could never manage without one, spurred the inner turmoil.

Still, her comedy is fueled by the men who come and go quickly, and in the play, seamlessly, from Siler, who remains chaste, to Ronald, who proves himself in a way washing machines never do. Onto Edward for further explorations, before landing the Doctor who was born with one testicle, etc., etc., etc.

On the subject of herself, Robbins is obviously loquacious, but she is not narcissistic. Reflecting on her teenage years, she recalls her inner doubts, “Am I actually pretty? Somewhere inside, I don’t quite believe it,” she opines.

And while her career as an actor is extensive — playing roles in soaps, primetime television, films, and musical theater — she is also understated about her accomplishments. Her most ambitious job, she informs us, was parenting. After all, her own parents were controlling puppeteers, and she was not going to be like them.

That Robbins is as lovable for her mistakes and dalliances as she is for her loyalties and sense of commitment, makes her story fun without intimidation. She dresses simply, in lavender workout clothes, and a long sweater. They’re easy to move in when demonstrating orgasms of the washing machine-worthy variety.

And Jane Shaw’s set design creates an open, multi-tiered playing area with a sleek silver stairway, and chandeliers made from household glassware.

Director Karen Carpenter brings out Robbins’s on-stage ease and charm. The actress isn’t seeped in feminism, but she gives sexual autonomy a meaningful plug.