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'The Mother' review: Isabelle Huppert is riveting as a woman losing her mind

Isabelle Huppert is a woman on the verge

Isabelle Huppert is a woman on the verge of mental collapse and Chris Noth plays her husband in "The Mother." Credit: Ahron R. Foster

WHAT "The Mother"

WHEN | WHERE Through April 13, Linda Gross Theater, 336 W. 20th St.

INFO $91.50-$111.50; 866-811-4111, atlantictheater.org

BOTTOM LINE A dark, depressing drama by Florian Zeller, but Isabelle Huppert's gripping performance is worth watching. 

She is alone onstage as the audience enters, a slight figure who doesn’t seem to know what to do with herself. Sitting demurely on one end of a long white sectional, she gazes at a book but doesn’t appear to read, plays with her hair and examines her manicure. It is a portrait of loneliness.

It will take a mere 85 minutes for it all to unravel in "The Mother," the dark, disquieting and depressing play by Florian Zeller at the Atlantic Theater Company. In the title role, the only role that matters really, Isabelle Huppert is a woman clearly on the verge of a breakdown.

The play unfolds in "Rashomon" fashion, scenes repeating and retelling in random order, making us understand that we are reaching ever deeper into this mother's tortured mind. Certain that her husband (Chris Noth, no shades of "Sex and the City's" pompous Mr. Big whatsoever) is playing around and distraught that her grown son (Justice Smith) refuses to visit or even return her phone calls, she comes unhinged before our eyes.

It is a tour de force performance, physically and emotionally challenging for Huppert, an Academy Award nominee for "Elle" and getting a lot of notice in the current thriller "Greta." The other characters get lost in the chaos, as she flails about Mark Wendland's pristine set, hitting the bottle, downing too many sleeping pills and changing into the oddly girlish red dress she bought to cheer herself up.

The play, directed by Trip Cullman and translated from French by Christopher Hampton, is something of a companion piece to Zeller's 2012 drama "The Father," about a patriarch's slide into dementia (Frank Langella starred in a 2016 run at the Manhattan Theatre Club.). This examination of mental disintegration is equally disturbing, though as the production veers sharply into the absurd, the audience is left second-guessing every moment. Huppert's heavy French accent adds to the overall lack of clarity.

Ultimately it feels like nothing is real except the emotional disconnect between mother and son. In a hospital bed recovering from an unwise combination of alcohol and drugs, someone tells her she will grow old "unhappy and alone," and she dreams that her son ends her suffering by strangling her. But no, the scene resets. She wakes with her husband at her side, promising her son will visit soon, a promise you strongly sense is not to be. If there's any meaningful advice to this sad story, it might be this: Call your mother.

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