It’s natural to wish harm on those who do harm. When “something heavy” falls on Eddy Bellegueule’s father at the factory where he works, leaving his back “broyé, écrasé” — “mangled, crushed” — it may seem a kind of justice. The father has, after all, left his son in approximately the same condition: mangled by homophobia and crushed by unrequited love.
Or at least that’s how I felt after reading the takedowns of toxic masculinity, and of the French provincial culture that produced it, in two memoirs by the boy who grew up to be Édouard Louis. “The End of Eddy” details his harrowing childhood in Hallencourt, a village about 100 miles north of Paris, where his father fumed at his son’s femininity, his schoolmates beat and used him sexually, and even his mother used a gay slur to mock him. In “History of Violence” we learn that the capital city, for all its sophistication, offered little shelter from the same forces; after picking up a man on Christmas Eve, Louis writes, he was robbed and raped.
But a third memoir, “Who Killed My Father,” implicitly asks readers, and now playgoers, to rethink who’s responsible and reassign the blame. Published in 2018, this one argues that homophobia — like racism, misogyny, transphobia and “all kinds of social and political oppression” — is not a personal failing but a cultural norm enforced by the state. Less a narrative than an indictment, it also brings the receipts.
I don’t know that the one-man stage adaptation of “Who Killed My Father” that opened on Sunday at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn — a production of Berlin’s Schaubühne and Théâtre de la Ville in Paris — will ultimately persuade you, though. Directed by Thomas Ostermeier, and featuring Louis himself, it is too eager to show off its avant-garde chic to maintain the prosecutorial force of the narrowly argumentative book.
That makes for a strange brew, both riveting and soporific. First comes the soporific: When we enter the theater, Louis is already at a desk, uplit by a laptop, muttering as he types what is evidently this script. On a screen behind him, English translations of the French he speaks share space with grainy, moody imagery, often depicting a ride on an endless, misty highway.
At first you may fear that the entire 90-minute play will resemble that ride, and if you saw Ostermeier’s excellent production of “History of Violence,” which St. Ann’s presented in 2019, you will recognize his bag of alienation tricks. Microphones, music, videography and random movement — Louis darts from the desk to two other areas of the stage as he recites — are used not merely to break the audience of lazy theatergoing expectations but also to delay gratification so that it’s richer when it arrives.
Yet there’s something to be said for those lazy expectations, including a desire for pleasure even in unpleasant things. Ostermeier gives us tiny appetizers in the form of interstitial dance breaks, when Louis, between heady sections of text, dons a wig or pulls a skirt over his pants to lip-sync the songs he loved as a boy. If “My Heart Will Go On,” “ … Baby One More Time” and Aqua’s “Barbie Girl” once enraged his parents, they now signify a kind of liberation. And Louis makes a delightful Celine Dion.
His father is granted no such liberation. After the accident, his life collapsed; unable to work, and yet forced to work anyway to maintain access to welfare, his health deteriorated drastically. By 2017, when the story is set, his heart “doesn’t want to beat anymore.” He is just past 50 and even speaking exhausts him.
Louis occasionally curls up in a recliner, meant to represent his absent father.Credit…Sara Krulwich/The New York Times
Not that we hear him speak, of course; this being a solo act, whatever the father says is refracted through the son — and again through the surtitles, if you’re not a Francophone. Indeed, one of the play’s cagey stratagems reduces the father further, to a piece of furniture: an empty recliner with a blue-check blanket, which Louis, now 29, occasionally talks to or curls up in. This representation of the longed-for parent is sweet but also somewhat creepy: He is deliberately kept out of the play.
That was true of the book as well, but narration works differently onstage than in prose. In subsuming his father’s voice, Louis eliminates him. Is he, in effect, the killer of the title?
In any case, it’s a complex Oedipal complex, and the play’s navel-gazing doesn’t help. Roughing it up with real instead of stagy difficulty eventually brings it to fuller life, as when Louis switches to English to tell us a story he says is too important not to share in the audience’s primary language. Whether because I simply understood him more directly, or because he, an otherwise indifferent actor, had to work harder to deliver the text, this passage was more thrilling than any that preceded it.
Notably, the passage concerns vengeance. As we hear how young Eddy revealed a secret to his father that he’d sworn to his mother to keep forever — thus causing family havoc that delighted the boy — we begin to sense the shape of a larger argument. As Louis frames it, family is the template for, and the creature of, the state, with its brutal leadership, its sycophantic enablers, its goons and its subversives. If he got back at the Bellegueules in his previous works, he proceeds in this one to get back at France.
I won’t say too much about how, except that in the final section of “Who Killed My Father” Louis offers specific answers, with detailed evidence, to the title question that is not even a question. Provided with magical powers for the occasion, along with a cape and a bowl of bang snaps, he creates a shrine to the country’s evildoers — the politicians of all stripes who made policies harming the poor and unwell — and, in a kind of childish exorcism, symbolically destroys them.
However weird and stunning this is as a theatrical gesture, it left me confused about the play’s underpinnings. Having convincingly explained his father’s medical predicament as a result of anti-proletarian politics — “humiliation by the ruling class,” he calls it — Louis tries to connect his father’s homophobia to the same source.
Here the logic becomes murky, and by the time Louis offers a formula connecting the two — “hatred of homosexuals equals poverty” — I felt he was doing anything he could to absolve his father of personal responsibility for his prejudices. And though it’s surely a son’s right to exonerate the man who helped ruin his childhood, those of us who took Louis’s earlier books to heart may not feel as forgiving.
That’s the real drama here: Louis’s struggle to rationalize, within his politics, the irrational desire to forgive. Still, “Who Killed My Father” is a strange way to do it, especially if you know (as neither the book nor the play tells you) that his father, despite the title, is alive. Just not onstage.
Who Killed My Father
Through June 5 at St. Ann’s Warehouse, Brooklyn; stannswarehouse.org. Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes.