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Theater Review

Strindberg's 'The Father'--Locked in Marital Holy War

April 10, 1998|LAURIE WINER | TIMES THEATER CRITIC

It should be simple. We should be able to look at the warring couple in "The Father," August Strindberg's 1887 play, and say that their problems could be solved with co-dependency therapy and then some DNA testing.

But, no. In a passionate production of the play at the Geffen Playhouse, it's impossible to laugh off this war between a husband and wife as an antique battle set in a place of rigid sexual inequality. In Strindberg, the husband demands and the wife manipulates, expertly exploiting her husband's belief that no man can be certain he is the biological father of his child. A loveless marriage becomes a fight virtually to the death for control of a daughter. Or is that why they fight? In the fire of this holy war, the child's welfare is utterly forgotten. It's surprising not how much has changed but how little has changed.

Frank Langella enters with his masculine energy fairly busting out of his blue military coat, but his face has the tortured air of a philosopher. Everything about him is intense--his pride, his intelligence and his fear, which he leavens with sardonic humor (thanks in part to Richard Nelson's excellent, tart adaptation). Describing his wife, the Captain makes a mischievous feint toward generosity: "Let's just say she's not at her best with practical things--like reality."

Langella's performance is hammy and disciplined, entertaining and insightful. He brings solidity and danger to the stage. He seems capable of dismantling his wife for breakfast, but we soon see that the danger we sense is because he is vulnerable. Langella's first sign of instability is a habit of touching each button on his coat, as if to make sure he's still all there. When his Captain finally does lose control, exploding out of the straitjacket of his military coat, his performance sometimes goes awry, into a too-ethereal conception of madness.

This is partially the fault of British director Clifford Williams, who also directed Langella in the role in a Roundabout Theatre production on Broadway in 1996. Williams has a marvelous feel for Strindberg's deep gloom and for his jagged teeth, but at critical moments the director distrusts his own instincts and goes over the top. It is only a grace note over, but it's an important distance.

The Captain is surrounded by a triangle of women, the mother figure, his childhood nurse Margaret (the redoubtable Anne Pitoniak), his teenage daughter Bertha (Angela Bettis) and his wife Laura (Carolyn McCormick), from whom he is emotionally estranged. Their hatred for each other, the exact emotional arsenal of their warfare, is palpable from McCormick's first entrance. The Captain has decided that Bertha will live and be educated in town with sensible people, away from her religious grandmother and from her mother. Laura wants her only child at home.

The Captain starts the war by reducing marriage to a hard economic equation--I have paid for you and your child and so I alone will decide what happens to Bertha. Laura fights dirty because she has no options. But Strindberg fires the play with his own misogyny, giving us a woman who is more brutal than she needs to be to win. Laura fights to the death and without mercy. It's a mark of how good McCormick is that in the course of the play her looks change, without makeup, from peppery attractiveness to gorgon.

*

Williams has taken the liberty of leveling the playing field somewhat. He makes the Captain guilty not merely of rigid paternalism, but also of an unsavory attachment to his daughter Bertha. And when he goes mad, the Captain's actions toward Bertha have a lurid overlay not found per se in the text. Some of it works. An unscripted slap is truly shocking. But other details of the Captain's derangement seem like stage business more than madness.

At the same time, one rage-filled act provided by Strindberg--the throwing of a lighted glass lamp--is staged without a feeling of peril. Both the lamp toss itself and the lame sound effect that follows rob the play of a crucial spurt of violence that does exist in the text.

The production is of a very high quality and therefore the moments that ring untrue are deeply felt.

James Noone's well-realized set, the parlor of the Captain's house in a Swedish province, has a streaky, prison-like gloom and masculine furniture. Anne Militello's painterly lighting is textured and has its own ideas, putting Laura in shadow and the Captain in light as his madness intensifies and the world begins to slip away from him.

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