If you want to see a truly magnificent performance - and, I should imagine, a certain Tony nomination - get along to the Roundabout Theater's production of Strindberg's "The Father," and take in Frank Langella's electrifying portrayal in the title role.
This 1887 work, obviously a Roundabout favorite, for this is the third time the company has staged it in 30 years, is often regarded as a touchstone of a new naturalism in drama.
Yet this gripping play about the battle of the sexes (almost a first-draft for Strindberg's ultimate statement on the subject, "The Dance of Death"), even though it received guarded approval from naturalism's major prophet, Emile Zola, is better seen as a study in pathological psychology - weird, savage and totally engrossing.
The Captain (Langella) is a man shuddering on the edge of schizophrenia, driven there by his wife, Laura (Gail Strickland). "It's war," as he says, "and women don't play fair." But then, and even the misogynistic Strindberg has to admit it, neither do men.
The Captain's character and consequently the play, hinges on two major concerns of Strindberg's own morbid psychology - his fear of becoming certifiably mad, and his fevered doubts of his wife's chastity, and consequently the parentage of his children.
The Roundabout production, fiercely and tautly directed by Clifford Williams, with a dourly elegant setting by John Lee Beatty, and equally telling costumes by Martin Pakledinaz, uses a brand new adaptation by playwright Richard Nelson.
It possesses more fluency and certainly more contemporary immediacy than some of the older translations, but - and this could be the director's choice - it also is peculiar in making the admittedly brief three-act play into a one-acter.
This is a grave mistake because although Strindberg avowedly aimed at the classic unities of time, place and action, the time is far from continuous and he knew we needed those two intermissions to absorb the changes in the Captain's character - his developing break-up and inevitable descent into madness.
Without that carefully executed dramatic pattern, the already condensed action loses shape and conviction, so even its total credibility becomes suspect. That it survives is due to Williams' eye for detail, and the performances.
The play is - as I suppose it must be - dominated by Langella's Captain. I have seen two great earlier portrayals of the role: Michael Redgrave, who was blazing-eyes crazy, but iron-controlled from the beginning, and, later, Wilfred Lawson who degenerated into a kind of Lear-like madness before our shocked eyes.
Langella chooses the latter path - at first he seems little more than eccentric, counting the buttons on his tunic as a nervous tic, fussing around his desk, and suggesting a tinge of the neurotic in his voice.
Then when his wife plants the poisoned seed of doubt in his mind - is his treasured daughter, his one pagan of hope of any immortality, not his? - his paranoia seeps through his being and capsizes his senses. "I could explode," he says, "any time."
It is a wonderfully powerful yet subtle portrait of a man first loosening then losing his grasp of himself and the world.
None of the other performances matches this although Strickland, taking the rough and absolutely unsympathetic view of Laura, comes very close; Ivar Brogger bumbles nicely as the hypocritical Pastor; and although Tom Beckett makes surprisingly little of the Doctor, Irene Dailey, warm and troubled, proves lovely as the Judas nurse.
When Dailey tearfully tricks Langella into putting on a straitjacket, you are privy to one of the great moments of the modern theater impeccably played.
That three or four minutes alone would be worth our evening - they don't get any better.
When the lights come up on the first scene, the Captain, ramrod-straight in the spotless uniform of a 19th-century Swedish cavalry officer, stands at the left of the stage as if frozen in mid-gesture. He appears to have no idea where he is or what he's about to do. His anxiety quickly passes, but it's an indelible moment. It's also enough time for Frank Langella to suggest what soon turns out to be stunningly true: his complete command over one of the most difficult and complex assignments in the modern theater. That is, the role of the obsessed husband and father in August Strindberg's mesmerizing and ferocious marriage play, "The Father."
Though the Roundabout Theater Company production, which opened last night at the Criterion Center, has its perfunctory elements, "The Father" still has the power to astonish. Richard Nelson's new adaptation of the Swedish text speaks in clean, spare English prose, the kind that remains discreetly outside time without betraying the conventions of the period when the play was written (1887). Equally important, Mr. Langella's performance is a career triumph of the sort Broadway has seen only once before this season in something other than a megabuck musical.
Patrick Stewart, move over.
By that I don't mean to equate "The Father" with George C. Wolfe's recent, memorably exuberant version of "The Tempest," with Mr. Stewart as Prospero. "The Father" is something else entirely. Yet being in the presence of a performance as beautifully executed as Mr. Langella's can be an upper even when the circumstances are grim.
On the stage and in films, Mr. Langella has always seemed a performer of somewhat slippery charm, most successful playing the kind of rogues you don't necessarily have to admire to find lightly amusing. It now appears that he has been biding his time. In this production, directed by Clifford Williams, he locates the strength and terrible coherence within a work that sometimes seems as frenzied and mad as the master who wrote it.
It's not exactly news to report that "The Father" is an extraordinary play. The news is that its ability to shock remains undiminished as, in the course of 24 hours, the increasingly chilly, 20-year marriage of the Captain and the willful Laura escalates into a war to the death. We are deep in territory that Ingmar Bergman would later explore, though never with quite such harrowing results.
The time is early winter, and the place is a remote Swedish country district where the Captain is stationed. Even at the start of the play, he has intimations of disaster. For months he has been engaged in a genteel battle with Laura over the education of their teen-age daughter, Bertha. Laura feels Bertha has promise as a painter. Though he loves Bertha, the Captain says she has no talent and should be sent off to town to become a teacher. The girl, who adores both parents, agrees with whomever has her ear at the moment. She simply wants peace.
In a moment of fury with her overbearing husband, Laura hints that because Bertha may not be his child, the Captain has no rights in the matter of her education. She says she's ready to face any scandal to protect Bertha's future. This doubt, once planted in the Captain's mind, eventually overwhelms him and everyone in his vicinity.
Those are only the surface circumstances of the play, in which Strindberg documents what he sees as the inevitable, primal confrontation between man and woman. The Captain is an intellectual, a proudly self-proclaimed atheist. He's a man of reason with aspirations as a scientist. Laura is intuitive, materialistic, sometimes loving and, when desperate, as dangerous as a mother polar bear. The Captain accepts his role as master of the house as a right conferred by the laws of nature. Laura laughs at the idea. There's no room for compromise.
"The Father," which predates Freud, would certainly not have survived all this time if it didn't have sound psychological underpinnings. When the Captain and Laura married, he was seeking a mother and she a child, but then things changed. Says Laura, "I'd go to hug the boy and arouse the man, who would make me despise myself." She calls love between the sexes "a duel." When she gave in to him, she tells the Captain, she did it strategically: "You never conquered. I simply succumbed to get what I wanted. You did get on top, but that was my choice."
At another point the Captain says almost sadly, "I don't think women can help themselves, so in a way, you can't even blame them."
It's easy to see why the Captain hates Laura. She freely lies to him, intercepts his mail and rejoices in the signs that foretell his mental breakdown.
Yet she's not entirely unreasonable: he's impossibly arrogant. Both the Captain and Laura have moments of sorrowful self-awareness. In the middle of this hurricane, there are sudden calms that are all the more moving for being so full of unexpected balm.
It takes two people to have an epic battle. The major flaw in this production is that Gail Strickland's Laura is no match for Mr. Langella's Captain. With her strong jaw and reddish hair, she looks right and moves well, but the performance is frosty and one-dimensional. What's worse is that, like Joan Sutherland, she seems to have trouble with her consonants. Lines of dialogue come out in great gulps of undifferentiated syllables, as if being heard on a faulty telephone line. The result: many of her speeches are unintelligible. You have to read the text to find out what she was saying.
The supporting cast is also a mixed bag. Tom Beckett, late of the excellent "Travels With My Aunt" ensemble, seems too young and green to play the widowed doctor. Angela Bettis is acceptable as Bertha, a nearly impossible role. As others have noted, Bertha is supposed to be 17 years old, though, as written, she seems more like 7. Ivar Brogger gives a good, self-effacing account of himself as the Pastor, Laura's feckless brother who's a friend to the Captain until the going gets tough. Only Irene Dailey, playing the Captain's nurse, Old Margaret, is anywhere near Mr. Langella's particular speed of intellect.
John Lee Beatty designed the deceptively plain but evocative set: a minimally furnished living room with a ceiling that seems to have been made from lumber a thousand years old. With lighting by Kenneth Posner, the space is dim, empty, cheerless and, though large, dangerously claustrophobic.
Mr. Langella doesn't carry this production by himself. He has Mr. Nelson's excellent adaptation to work with, but he's also the evening's spine, its voice and its grandly resonant theatrical conscience. It's as if we'd never really seen him before. Welcome to the city.
The Roundabout Theater has a long association with the plays of August Strindberg; "The Father" was the company'sinaugural production 30 years ago, in considerably less glamorous circumstances than the current outing affords. For this occasion, Frank Langella returns to Broadway in the title role, giving a hair-raising performance as a grounded man driven by doubt into madness. Langella begins the play as an imposing Captain -- scientist, atheist and male chauvinist -- the picture of starched, smug rectitude. Ninety minutes later, strait-jacketed and stroke-ruined, he's a supine wreck, the victim of a terrorist household coven ruled by his wife, Laura (Gail Strickland), who will do anything to ensure that their daughter, Bertha (Angela Bettis), will be raised as she, not he, sees fit.
Laura has methodically set out to undermine her husband's credibility and sanity to retain control over their adolescent daughter's future. Through correspondence, she has implanted in the minds of their friends the idea that he is mad, a course she also follows with their credulous new doctor (Tom Beckett). For good measure, she has also destroyed his chance at gaining respectability as a scientist, which he hoped would provide liberation from the drudgery of a military life. Finally, she implants the notion that he may not be the father of the child he adores and who adores him; in the production's most disturbing scene, he literally begins devouring the girl before trying to murder her.
As with "Othello," our ability to enter the world of "The Father" depends on our willingness to believe that love can so quickly turn to distrust and then murderous rage. To the extent that he makes such a flash-point transition plausible, Langella is persuasive, even amazing. As with his cooler but no less paternalistic Prospero (in a flawed Roundabout production of "The Tempest" six years ago), he offers a riveting central performance in an otherwise forgettable production. Everything about him -- buttons, eyes, veins, heart -- seems perpetually on the verge of popping with a menacing force. If he has the military bearing of an Othello, Langella also affects the preposterous but compelling bathos of a Lear, particularly in the touching scenes with Bettis (who is more moving as the teenage Bertha than she was in last season's "Arcadia").
The script is open to more irony than either Richard Nelson's colloquial adaptation or Clifford Williams' somewhat stolid staging allow. A less affected Laura than the one Strickland plays might have helped; Strickland's consonants are shot out with little bursts of air; "boxes and boxes of books" comes out "poxes and poxes of pooks." Irene Dailey, on the other hand, is a treasure as Old Margaret, who has raised the Captain since infancy and still has few qualms about betraying him in the service of sisterhood. Ivar Brogger, as Laura's brother, the Pastor, and Beckett, as the doctor, are all right, in equally ridiculous roles.
John Lee Beatty has provided the very model of a Scandi set, all frozen gray planking and sparse furnishing, and it's lit less gloomily than one has comes to expect (remember Hedda?), thanks to Kenneth Posner. Martin Pakledinaz's costumes are just right. Whether by design or incompetence, the echoic ringing of amplified voices throughout -- the usually capable John Gromada designed the sound -- nearly drove me as mad as the mad playwright.
But, truth to tell, I don't have a lot of patience for early Strindberg, who was already cracked, if not completely separated from the yolk, in the late 1880 s, when he wrote his influential, so-called naturalistic plays, including "The Father" (1887). In the century since, he has been revered as a father of modern drama, yet those plays have mostly become the forms on which directors hang their own visions, as Ingmar Bergman recently did, memorably, with "Miss Julie." Shaw -- no less Strindberg's opposite than the Swede's more proximate Norwegian rival, Ibsen -- famously exalted him, though the praise rings somewhat hollow: Declaring that Strindberg portrayed the battle of the sexes in classically tragic terms, Shaw allowed that on such matters, his own view tended more toward the comic. Amen.