Review: "a comic/tragic tour de force"

Reviewed Performance: 4/6/2019

Reviewed by Carol St George, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN

Welcome to Andre’s world. He’s an 80-year-old retired engineer living in a flat in Paris — that or a retired dancer living with his daughter, no, make that one of his daughters (he has two, doesn’t he?). His world is turning weird. Strangers keep showing up in his flat. His daughter says she’s moving to London one day and the opposite a few days later. Things go missing and then reappear. Especially his watch. Is this a horror story? Of sorts.

Stage West’s regional premiere of The Father is described by Director Tina Parker as “brutally real and heartbreakingly hilarious — sometimes in the same scene, with echoes of King Lear, Harold Pinter, and All in the Family.” It is that and confusing and devastating and unforgettable.

I showed up at Stage West with great expectations. Writer Florian Zeller is a celebrated French novelist and playwright bedecked with all kinds of honors, including the prestigious Prix Interallié for his novel Fascination of Evil and several Molière Awards (the highest theatrical honor) for two plays, The Mother and The Father. What’s more, The Father was nominated for Best New Play at the 2016 Olivier Awards and snagged two Tony Award nominations, Best Play and Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role for the incomparable Frank Langella. The translator Christopher Hampton is no slouch, either. With four Tony Awards, three Olivier Awards, four Evening Standard Awards, and the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award under his belt for his own plays and musicals, he’s translated everyone from Chekhov and Ibsen to Zeller, and also written such well-known screen plays as Dangerous Liaisons, Tales from The Vienna Woods, and A Doll’s House.

Furthermore, I was looking forward to seeing the work of venerable Fort Worth actor David Coffee, who has not only graced the stages of good regional playhouses but also played Scrooge at North Shore Music Theatre in Beverly, Massachusetts for the last 25 years. 

I was not prepared for what I encountered.

David Coffee as Andre is a comic/tragic tour de force. His electric emotions animate his nimble body and play across his face, flashing from pleasure to rage in nanoseconds. So quick is he to react to his unsettling situations that you dare not look away lest you miss a clue that could help you get your own bearings. Crotchety old men like him are fun to watch. Think Archie Bunker without the bigotry. He’s a character that makes you want to get inside his head and view life through his psyche. And then you do.

Coffee’s Andre is endearingly funny and easily elicits laughter just standing there. I found myself chuckling with nearly every scene he dominates. So why at some point did I realize I was on the edge of tears with nowhere to go but over? The gut punch delivered by The Father doesn’t so much blindside you from out of nowhere as grip you from inside, squeezing till you’re startled by pain. 

Each of the other characters dancing around Andre’s reality are bewildered in their own way. Jessica D. Turner as Anne is masterful in her visceral portrait of the anxious, weary daughter, thrown into exhaustive negotiations with her difficult father. Her face telegraphs the crazy quilt of frustration, hurt, love, and resignation that define daily life with Andre. We could be in her shoes, wondering who kidnapped her father and replaced him with this erratic creature. We might ponder how we would handle the situation…or reflect on how we did handle it.

We could just as easily be in the shoes of her husband Pierre, played with smoldering hostility by Cameron Cobb. His barely concealed exasperation with the story’s altered reality is all too human.

Perhaps we identify with one of the other characters who pass through Andre’s world. There’s the charming Laura (Jo-Jo Stein), whose perky optimism could be unshakable, but isn’t. There’s the even-keeled Woman (Karen Parrish) who has probably seen it all and remains mostly unruffled. Then there’s the Man (Ira Steck) who’s cool and collected, or possibly a monster. No character sails through this disruptive play without some shape-shifting, least of all Andre. But even as we’re confounded, these actors keep us grounded in the reality that eventually surfaces, hitting uncomfortably close to home.

The plot unfolds in a series of short scenes that pop in and out of view like memories, precisely switched on and off by Lisa Miler’s skillful lighting. The set, designed by Bob Lavallee (with props by Lynn Lovett), achieves seamless transitions from a cozy, well-worn flat to a modern, minimalist apartment and more, in sync with time and place. Marco Salinas’s restrained sound design deftly transports us from serenity to near insanity and back.

Director Tina Parker has taken the story to heart and allowed this deeply affecting play to perplex, humor, and illuminate us by turns, and we find the wild ride as exhilarating as it is disorienting. 

In its 40th year, Stage West has proved its command of the theatrical medium time and again, The Father being no exception. For anyone acquainted with, or the child of, a person of age, you may recognize this off-kilter landscape. The familiarity could make you laugh. Till you cry. For 90 minutes, you’ll experience life through another’s eyes. And nothing will look the same after that.