No one brings more pleasure to being miserable than Ted van Griethuysen. Of course, by design it’s hard to tell whether the actor himself is having a good time in “The Father,” a sober medical manual of a play about the dementia afflicting a once-vital Parisian engineer.
But he certainly is able to fill a space in Studio Theatre’s complex on 14th Street NW with the joy of his formidable technique. His André, a retiree placing exhausting demands on his heartsick daughter, Anne (Kate Eastwood Norris), is another of his superlative portrayals, on this occasion one requiring him to embody André’s increasingly futile efforts to cover up his advancing affliction.
Playwright Florian Zeller, whose 90-minute play has been translated from French by Christopher Hampton, brings a puzzle master’s diabolical brain to the job of dramatizing André’s decline. In scenes staged with a surgical assurance by director David Muse, Zeller deftly reveals André’s confusion over where he is, who everyone else is and whether what’s happening at any given moment is real or a hallucination.
Still, “The Father” never quite sheds the impression of being most useful as a learning exercise for budding gerontologists. Norris and the production’s four other actors, Erika Rose, Manny Buckley, Caroline Dubberly and Daniel Harray, share the rather dull task of portraying figures of shifting identity in André’s cloudy head. There’s not much else for them to do here, except wring their hands or look worried or erupt impatiently at André’s bitter tirades and fading comprehension.
This reactive construct and the play’s curiously ambiguous frame of reference — at some points, we seem to be inside André’s mind and at others watching as if we were indeed at a clinical distance — leave us with the rather empty feeling that “The Father” is a cold body still waiting for its circulatory system to warm things up. We learn early in the evening that André is severely disabled, and from there it’s just a chronicle of his struggle to make sense of things as his sense begins to fail him.
The playwright strives to create a compelling picture of the incremental mental losses André sustains, through some simple and effective repositioning or removing of objects in his apartment from scene to scene. Ah, but is it his apartment? (“The Father” asks you to play mnemonically along, as wall hangings and side tables and even whole rooms disappear.) Is this Anne really his daughter, and which of these guys who materialize sipping red wine is her mate, Pierre?
That’s about the only vigorous level on which the play operates — the one lingering issue being André’s cavalier treatment of Anne, whom he’s constantly comparing with Elise, his other, unseen, daughter, the one he professes to prefer. In this regard, Norris acquits herself admirably, communicating the mix of shame, compassion and anger summoned by a paternal disdain that’s stirred by either authentic resentment or illness.
Through it all, van Griethuysen exposes an audience to the production’s other lesson, in acting. He plays the role here in a way that will be recognized by anyone who has or had to cope with or nurse loved ones suffering from the slow departure of their faculties. The air of casual dismissal he effects, leading eventually to an expression of deep, solitary despair, comes across as the poignantly credible arc of a proud man’s pitiable trajectory.
That’s where the joy comes in. Even as André disintegrates, you sense the powers of an actor who can confidently escort you into a phantom zone of wan self-consciousness. The result, in this case, is a play that touches you more with the illusion an actor can create than with the collapse of a character’s whole world.
The Father by Florian Zeller, in a translation by Christopher Hampton. Directed by David Muse. Set, Debra Booth; costumes, Wade Laboissonniere; lighting, Keith Parham; sound, Ryan Rumery; fight direction, Robb Hunter; casting, Stuart Howard; production stage manager, Sarah Elizabeth Ford. About 90 minutes. Tickets: $20-$85. Through June 18 at Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St. NW. Call 202-332-3300 or visit studiotheatre.org.