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‘The Father’ review: Frank Langella scratches the surface

Frank Langella and Kathryn Erbe on Broadway in

Frank Langella and Kathryn Erbe on Broadway in Manhattan Theatre Club's "The Father" by major European playwright Florian Zeller, directed by Doug Hughes. Credit: Joan Marcus

WHAT “The Father”

WHERE Friedman Theatre, 261 W. 47th St.

INFO $70-$150; 212-239-6200; manhattantheatreclub.com

BOTTOM LINE Langella masterly in increasingly mundane play about dementia.

If America had a genuine classical theater, Frank Langella would be up there with the masters, a grand and gutsy performer of serious — if sometimes self-serious — majesty and an appetite for tasty slabs of scenery.

Any chance to see him onstage these days — instead of as a fascinating supporting character on the riveting TV show “The Americans” — is an opportunity. And “The Father,” in which Langella takes us behind the eyes of an increasingly delusional older man, is more than just any chance.

But how I wish I could say that Florian Zeller’s play lived up to the depths of its worthy ambition — much less to Langella’s silken heartbreak of a performance or to the international acclaim of the award-winning French author.

“The Father,” which is having its American premiere in a new production directed by Doug Hughes (“Doubt”) and translated by Christopher Hampton, uses a come-on-along device to try to make us viscerally feel the confusion and the cruelty of the mind in disarray.

And what children of an aging parent will not face the awful moment they must say, “We have to talk?” What fortunate older person won’t have to realize that independent life, as assumed all those years, is no longer an option? There’s an inbuilt audience, obviously, even for increasingly shallow results.

Langella plays André, a father who thinks he may have been a dancer or maybe an engineer. He lives in his handsome apartment with the books and the dark green walls (designed by Scott Pask). We watch as home aides run scared from the unpredictable man and as his daughter Anne (Kathryn Erbe) tries to manage his future without ruining hers. André was clearly a formidable and not-always-kind man, accustomed to being admired and sure of himself, a flirt who can still charm a potential employee with a perilously committed tap dance.

Zeller initially structures this as a kind of thriller. Different actors play the same people at different times, angering, then befuddling André and making us hope for a mystery more ambiguous — more Pinteresque — than life’s obvious deterioration. At times, Langella, with his big, eloquent head and expressive hands, almost makes us see André as a Lear raging against the storm.

Instead, André gets small, time folds back and forth over itself, and all the other characters just feel like two-dimensional props for Langella’s performance. Hughes uses a flash of glaring light between scenes. The effect becomes more irritating than theatrical in a play that, for all its big intentions, never really touches the indignities and profundity of self-loss.

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