Theater review: Fran Langella returns in 'The Father'

Frank Langella and Kathryn Erbe face caregiving issues — and each other — in “The Father.”Joan Marcus/©2016 Joan Marcus

Frank Langella and Kathryn Erbe face caregiving issues — and each other — in “The Father.”

With three Tonys on his shelf, Frank Langella knows his way around a Broadway stage. That includes when he’s playing someone lost in the dark clouds of dementia.

Meet Andre, the Alzheimer’s-addled title character of “The Father,” a slick but superficial new play.

Written by rising-star French author Florian Zeller and translated by Christopher Hampton (“Les Liaisons Dangereuses”), this 90-minute play comes with 15 scenes and a compelling conceit. You must walk a mile in Andre’s slippers to experience what it’s like to lose your marbles. And you will.

In Paris, Andre talks to his daughter Anne (Kathryn Erbe, excellent) in a well-appointed flat. His caretaker has quit. Did she walk because he hit her? Or is he the one being abused? Andre, a retired engineer, or so Anne says, acts as if people around him are nuts.

Kathryn Erbe and Tony-winner Frank Langella in a show that intentionally creates confusion.Joan Marcus/©2016 Joan Marcus

Kathryn Erbe and Tony-winner Frank Langella in a show that intentionally creates confusion.

So far, so good. But confusion soon sets in as reversals, contradictions and inconsistencies pop up in the script. Factor in vanishing set pieces and characters played by more than one actor, and you relate to Andre. If not Ingrid Bergman in “Gaslight.”

It’s a meaty dramatic gambit, though not ground-breaking. “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time” does something similar with an autistic teenager.

At its best, Zeller’s writing is crisp, darkly humorous and emits a hushed Pinteresque chill. On the down side, the play is so sterile it sidesteps the mess that comes with mental deterioration. And it sinks from overkill, starting with the name Andre — as in “man.” This could happen to you, people. And then there’s Andre’s constant search for his watch. Time is precious. We get it.

Frank Langella and Hannah Cabell give strong performances in “The Father.”Joan Marcus/©2016 Joan Marcus

Frank Langella and Hannah Cabell give strong performances in “The Father.”

Doug Hughes’ direction in the Manhattan Theatre Club staging also cuts both ways. He guides the fine ensemble through the play’s tricky contours. Erbe, known for “Law & Order: Criminal Intent,” is assured and affecting. Hannah Cabell is very fine as an aide who brings out Andre’s flirty, charming and superior aspects.

But between-scene blackouts nag. Violins saw noisily. Lights flash. Presumably it’s to suggest brain connections short-circuiting. But it leads to diminishing returns.

Fortunately, though, Langella is forever intriguing. As Andre goes from wily and irascible to groping and helpless, the fall is all the more powerful because of Langella’s strong physical presence. Andre’s last-minute moment of clarity is a punch in the gut for him — and us.

jdziemianowicz@nydailynews.com

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