Just three years ago, French playwright Florian Zeller made a splash on the Great White Way with his play “The Father,” which nabbed him a Best Play Tony nomination and earned its star Frank Langella his career-fourth trophy. This season, Zeller’s knack for attracting legendary talent continues with his second Broadway offering “The Height of the Storm,” which stars Jonathan Pryce and Eileen Atkins.
“The Height of the Storm,” a Manhattan Theatre Club production which opened at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre on September 24, centers on the unsettling upheavals in the endearing and enduring fifty-year relationship between Parisian couple André (Pryce) and Madeleine (Atkins). Tony nominee Jonathan Kent (“A Long Day’s Journey Into Night”) directs.
The parallels between Zeller’s “Father” and “Storm” seem to have struck a number of theatre critics, who could not help but observe that this drama pales in comparison. Jesse Green (New York Times), for one, offers an unfavorable reading of the production. Even though he praises both the leads as “contrastingly and compulsively watchable” and Kent’s staging as “exquisitely decorous,” he suggests that these highlights are in service of the “least rewarding” of Zeller’s plays on the theme of aging and dementia, including not only “The Father,” but also Zeller’s recent Off-Broadway drama “The Mother.”
Sara Holdren (Vulture) similarly deems “Storm” a “rather wispy” work offering less a narrative than a “meditative haze” that lacks an “ultimate sense of consequence.” Holdren sees Atkins as the “absolutely wonderful” “saving grace” of the production, though, and she also commends Pryce as “vulnerable and affecting.”
Not every reviewer sees the similarities across Zeller’s works as a detriment, however. Adam Feldman (Time Out New York) gives the production four-out-of-five stars, calling it “skillfully woven with dream logic” and a “deliberately frustrating experience.” Like Green and Holdren, though, Feldman notes that the performances from Pryce and Atkins truly elevate the material beyond “merely a clever exercise.”
While the overall tepid critical response to “The Height of the Storm” might not bode well for its chances in the top Tony category of Best Play, its headlining performers may prove difficult for voters to ignore. Indeed, Pryce has a strong track record with theatre’s highest honor, winning the award on both occasions that he received nominations (“Comedians,” 1977; “Miss Saigon,” 1991). And though Atkins has yet to take home a Tony, she has received nominations for four of her six eligible appearances on Broadway in 1967, 1972, 1995, and 2004, an impressive forty-year nominations history that signals how much Tony voters admire her work. Atkins also received an Olivier Award nomination for this role back in March, which occasionally foretells a Tony nomination across the pond.
Despite these combined successes, the Broadway calendar might not pan out in Pryce and Atkins’s favor. Slated to end its limited run on November 24, “The Height of the Storm” may seem a distant memory to the members of the Tony nominating committee—even though a number of nominees and even winners from last year’s ceremony prove that these savvy theatergoers remember the highlights from shuttered shows of the Fall. Of course, with a whopping 16 more plays and play revivals currently slated to open between now and the eligibility deadline in April 2020, competition may become too strong for these performers to stave off, especially given the mixed reviews for the production overall.