Shoot Me When and The Father: Dementia as Romantic Comedy and Trickster Tragedy

Five years ago, when Florian Zeller’s “The Father” debuted on Broadway, Frank Langella portrayed the fifth character I’d seen that year on a New York stage who was struggling with dementia.  I thought of these five plays this week while watching Anthony Hopkins’ Oscar-winning portrayal of the Langella character in the movie adaptation of Zeller’s play, as well as San Francisco Playhouse’s current streaming of a new play by Ruben Grijalva entitled “Shoot Me When.” 

Whatever their merits, both struck me as offering side arguments for the continuing need for theater-based storytelling.

“Shoot Me When” offers an unlikely scenario: Jackie (Lorri Holt) is a vivacious, attractive, serially married older woman whose two daughters are planning to kill her – at her request.  The reason trickles out over the first couple of scenes. We first see her at a bar flirting with a man named Len (Dan Hiatt), and telling him with great enthusiasm that the Manhattan she’s drinking is the best Manhattan she’s ever had in her life…until he offers to buy her another. “God no,” she replies; “that was just the worst Manhattan I’ve ever had in my whole life.” That’s the first clue the playwright offers us that Jackie has dementia.

We thus meet-cute her condition, analogous to the way future lovers meet in formulaic romantic comedies. Soon there are other clues – she thinks her daughter Ariel has three children, when she is actually the mother of  just two – until eventually Ariel (Melissa Ortiz) reveals a story that makes the diagnosis undeniable: Jackie had returned to the office from which she had retired, thinking she still worked there; when she found her former assistant sitting in her seat,  she accused her of stealing her office and physically trashed the place. “They tied her up in the supply closet ’til I got there,” Ariel says to her younger sister Gabrielle (Blythe de Oliveira Foster.) It was the sign that it was time to assist in her suicide, as the two had promised her mother years earlier they would do. 

So Ariel summoned Gabrielle to fly back home, to execute their plan, which was her plan.  They will first treat her to a final night of fun – a party, dancing and reminiscing, eating her favorite ice cream (it’s unclear how planned a final assignation with a man, but that happens too, with Len) – until they lead her to the car in the garage, and Jackie’s chosen method, carbon monoxide.

Things go awry, involving, centrally, Len, a widower who conveniently is a retired cop — in a way that reads comedy, but which didn’t seem all that funny. 

And yet, despite what felt to me like concessions to the conventions of middlebrow stage comedy, I couldn’t completely dismiss “Shoot Me When.”  It manages to suggest some thought-provoking issues, but mostly it’s because the characters felt authentically observed, nuanced in a way that the plot is not. Ariel comes off as nervous and overly cautious while Gabrielle is more attractively free-spirited, until we learn that Ariel has been Jackie’s caretaker for three years (which may be the reason her marriage is endangered), while Gabrielle has been traveling the world her whole adult life, never settling down. We come to feel that both of their very different lives are a direct casualty of Jackie’s carefree/selfish  approach to life and motherhood 

These character studies owe much to the four cast members, who offer believable and appealing performances.  Bay Area critics identify Holt and Hiatt as long-time esteemed local actors – which is a strong argument for the continued existence of digital theater past the pandemic.  We need to see these actors wherever we may live.

An argument for the continued value of in-person theater occurred to me while watching the movie of “The Father,” which Zeller adopted from his play, and also directs.   Most of the scenes and the dialogue are the same, although its setting is switched to London from Paris with a change to English names for the characters (instead of André, Anthony), which makes little difference.  The main strength of “The Father” is the refreshing departure from most stories about dementia — it’s told from the point of view of the sufferer, rather than their children/caretakers. This requires some deliberately disorienting, trickster writing. The audience is just as confused as Anthony is about  whether his daughter Anne is married and, if so, to whom. 

Yet I have not seen anybody remark on what I found to be a significant difference between the play and the movie. When dealing with stage plays, filmmakers feel the  need to “open up” the mise en scene, and Zeller nods to that convention, with scenes shot on a street, in a grocery store, a doctor’s office, and a nursing home.

This undermines the claustrophobic sense of the play,  that we are sharing the mind of a man who is deteriorating. (One not very felicitous technique for driving this sense home in the stage production were the blindingly bright bulbs, like those that flash around a marquee, that assaulted our eyes in-between each scene, which I took to be a metaphor for zapped synapses.)

Another difference is even worse, and for the same reason. In the Broadway production, directed by Doug Hughes, Scott Pask’s gracefully appointed set is very slowly emptied of its contents.  Scene by scene, there is one less painting on the wall, one piece of furniture missing. This is almost imperceptible to the audience at first, but eventually it becomes undeniable. It dawns on us as the character’s confusion dawns on him. 

In the movie, this is reduced to a single scene in which Anthony complains to the caretaker about missing items, and is told he’s confusing his daughter’s flat for his own.  We are thrust outside – outside the mind, outside the screen.  

In the theater, the missing items functioned as more than just a metaphor; it made us feel as one with the character….as one with the story.

Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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