Femmes and Fortune

They'll Always Have Paris: Sian Phillips and Peter Friedman in My Old Lady.Photo: Craig Schwartz

New Yorker Mathias Gold, 50, in Israel Horovitz’s My Old Lady, has inherited some French books and an apartment in Paris from his rich but unloving father, Max. All else has gone to charity. Mathias is penniless and hasn’t even the airfare back. He hopes to sell the opulent apartment overlooking the Luxembourg Gardens, except that it is inhabited by Mathilde Giffard, who sold it to Max but retains lifetime-occupancy rights, with the new owner responsible for “charges.” Widowed Mathilde is 94, admits to 92, and looks and carries on like one much younger. She could easily make 100 and more. Staying with her is Chloé, 50, Mathilde’s unmarried schoolteacher daughter, who takes an instant dislike to Mathias and who, unlike her mother, would have him ejected.

Mathias, thrice divorced, seems to have no profession. He has written two unpublished novels and a handful of unpublished poems, and keeps scribbling in a black notebook. His mother and siblings are long dead. How does this man live? Horovitz doesn’t tell. Forthwith in the three-character play, revelation follows revelation, but other than that Mathias has a drinking problem, is suicidal, and doesn’t speak French, it seems unfair to reveal them.

The writing is civilized and amusing, and the characters hold our interest. The only trouble is that I don’t believe any of it. I can see that when the women speak excellent English to Mathias, they would have a French accent. But why doesn’t the director, David Esbjornson, have them drop it when they speak to each other, putatively in French? Siân Phillips and Peter Friedman are both very fine, but Jan Maxwell, as Chloé, steals the show. The way she sustains the most profound distress in lacerating, silent agony, or lets radiance slowly, shyly suffuse her whole being – even the way she maintains her Frenchness when she must rattle off English sentences in rapid-fire agitation … this actress can do anything – except make one false move. Perfectly French, too, is John Lee Beatty’s superb set, compellingly lighted by Peter Kaczorowski. But as for the rest, it is, as they say in France, foutaise.

Seven into 34 won’t go, except at Playwrights Horizons, where that number of actors plays that many parts in Keith Bunin’s The World Over, a fantasy owing something to Beaumont and Fletcher, the brothers Grimm, and Candide. It unfolds in a fairy-tale world of strange countries (Amaranthia, Leocadia, and six others), weird maps displayed and scrutinized, borrowed names spelled askew (Lorenzacchio, Ruselka, Mamillius), a walking pleonasm (Old Crone), and generally outlandish goings-on. Adam, a castaway, seeks the country of Gilderay, whose throne he claims, to bring succor to his abused mother and justice to its misruled people.

That all over this mythical world people believe Gilderay to be the invention of children’s stories, that he had to overcome a murderous sultan to win his beautiful daughter, that he had to slay a gryphon who subsists on baby food (i.e., eats infants), that he loses his wife and kids in a deadly shipwreck, are only some of the problems besetting Adam.

Add to these the author’s overwrought imagination, which refuses to settle for the number of persons the vehicle can safely carry. But Bunin juggles wonderment with mischievous irony and somehow manages to nudge his tale through the Badlands of Longueur and the Desert of Sag. Tim Vasen, the director, aptly balances naïveté with camp, which some of the actors handle better than others. I liked James Urbaniak and Stephen Largay best, but Justin Kirk, as Adam, the lead role that alone obviated doubling, lacked the string (charisma? bravura? charm?) to tie things together. Mark Wendland (décor), Ilona Somogyi (costumes), Michael Chybowski (lights), and David Van Tieghem (music and sound) deployed condign magic.

I do not know Langston Hughes’s 1936 play Little Ham, but hope that it is better than the “Harlem Jazzical” contrived from it. Conceived by Eric Krebs seventeen years ago, it has had several productions, most recently this one in a small disused theater last season. It must have looked better there than currently in a medium-size one, where it feels like a shoestring in search of a shoe.

The book, by Dan Owens, tries to graft some Guys and Dolls onto rebarbatively sentimental material and has difficulty establishing character and locale, to say nothing of keeping the story line clear. The music and lyrics, by Judd Woldin (both) and Richard Engquist (lyrics only), would have been has-beens even in 1936, and not even the venerable Luther Henderson’s orchestrations and arrangements could make the five-piece onstage band sound funkier than a barbershop quartet.

Simplemindedness is ubiquitous but can be demonstrated most readily in the lyrics. Thus: “On the side of the angels / Reachin’ for the sun / On the side of the angels / Havin’ fun / We’ll be flyin’ like a seagull / Not driftin’ on the tide / We’ll have the angels on our side!” Throughout the lyric, the locus of the angels is repeated rather more than umpteen times, while the chorus varies its “woo woo woo woo” with a “doo doo doo doo,” punctuation being the least of what is missing here. It’s all about how the little folks of Harlem, led by the reformed lothario and numbers runner Hamlet Hitchcock Jones, outwit his bosses, the white gangsters preying on them. We conclude with a rousing finale whose refrain, “Say hello to your feet,” is likewise reiterated ad nauseam, to conclude with “And you’ll be burnin’ / Churnin’ / Turnin’ on the heat / When you say hello to your feet / Oh, yeah!”

The Butter and Egg Man (a term for a stagestruck outsider) was George S. Kaufman’s first – and solo – comedy, written in 1925. Behind-the-scenes showbiz farce has become rather commonplace since then, and the piece suffers from both datedness and perhaps a certain lack of Hart. Except for an unfortunate ingenue, Rosemarie Dewitt, the Atlantic Theater Company cast is acceptable, with Tom Mardirosian and Julie Halston especially adept at fielding gags.

My Old Lady
New play by Israel Horovitz; starring Peter Friedman, Siân Phillips, and Jan Maxwell.
The World Over
New play by Keith Bunin.
Little Ham
Musical adaptation of the Langston Hughes play; conceived by Eric Krebs.

Femmes and Fortune