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A CurtainUp Review
My Old Lady

My Old Lady Moves to Off-Broadway

Whether he meant to, or not, my father did a good thing by sending me here.[Looking up to heavens]Thank you, Max. On a scale of one to a hundred, you've gone from one to a three
--- Mathias, ever resorting to sarcasm, to hide the pain of a child growing up emotionally traumatized.
Siân Phillips and Peter Friedman (Photo: Craig Schwartz)

John Lee Beatty's elegant evocation of somewhat down-at-the-heels Parisian splendor has successfully moved from Los Angeles to Manhattan's upper west side, complete with its high ceilings molding and cartouche trimmed walls. Fortunately, the original cast is also in place: Siân Phillips as a ninety-four-year-old charmer claiming to be ninety-two, Jan Maxwell as her ice maiden daughter and Peter Friedman as the heir to their apartment. Individually and as an ensemble their perfromances build up the strengths of Israel Horovitz's play and make you overlook its shortcomings.

My own reaction to the play bears out Laura Hitchcok's prediction in the review of the Los Angeles production (see below) that My Old Lady will inspire arguments about the pros and cons of the the playwright's choices. On the pro side, there's the old-fashioned structure of ten scenes, each ending in a little climax which, much predictability notwithstanding, propels the story from to the next episode in a week of watching the fallout of parental sins visited on their children. To go with the old world sensibility of the play Horovitz has written dialogue of shifting moods that rove deliciously over a range of topics -- including the less than endearing side of Paris during World War II. These conversations are never talky and help to establish the personalities of the characters.

The women's accents are so authentically French that you tend not to nitpick about their occasionally dropping these accents when alone together. Friedman is right on the mark as the angry American who has interrupted their hushed bookish lives and learned that, true to what he calls his "loser virus, " he has inherited a valuable apartment with unexpected strings attached. (Some New Yorkers who have bought occupied co-ops, will recognize the French real estate practice of viager in which an apartment is bought at a low price with the understanding that the new owner can't occupy it until the existing occupant dies -- in fact the owner is responsible for the maintenance fees).

Jan Maxwell
Jan Maxwell
(Photo: Craig Schwartz)
The acting and staging took me to the intermission without feeling any need to remark on the con aspects of My Old Lady. But the second act has more difficult to overlook flaws, such as Chloé's abrupt change of heart about Mathias and the final soap-operatic push for the climax to top all those end of scene climaxes. Still, these actors manage to make even the overcooked aspects of the script theatrically satisfying: Friedman rescuing a drunk scene from coming off as maudlin; Mathilde's bourgeois practicality giving a semblance of believability to her savoire faire attitude towards one of our remaining taboos; Ms. Maxwell so moving in her turnaround scene that she almost convinced me it was possible.

Mr. Beatty's gorgeous set is strikingly lit by Peter Kaczorowski, the only new member of the superb design team. Mathilde and Chloéand Mathias may not be the most unforgettable characters ever put on stage, but as played by Phillips, Maxwell and Friedman, and in this feast-for-the-eyes staging, they're sure fun to watch. In a town like New York where real estate often dominates conversations, this real estate triggered tale has a built-in audience. -- Elyse Sommer

By Israel Horovitz
Directed by David Esbjornson
Siân Phillips (Mathilde Giffard), Peter Friedman (Mathias Gold) and Jan Maxwell (Chloé Giffard)
Sets: John Lee Beatty
Costumes: by Elizabeth Hope Clancy
Lighting: Peter Kaczorowski (Scott Zielinski in LA)
Original music: Peter Golub
Sound: Jon Gottlieb and Matthew Burton
Make-Up Design: Angelina AvalloneRunning Time: 2 hours plus one 15 minute intermission.
Promenade Theater, 2162 Broadway ( at West 76th Street)
From 9/12/02; opening 10/03/02.Tue-Fri @8PM, Sat @2PM & 8PM, Sun @3PM &7PM -- $60.

--- Laura Hitchcock's Review of My Old Lady in Los Angeles
Israel Horovitz' s new play My Old Lady grips an audience from the very beginning when the lights go up on Mathilde Giffard in a Paris apartment as lofty, lived-in, and elegant as she is.

A middle-aged man bumbles in, the latest foray in a lifetime of bumbling. The man, Mathias "Jim" Gold (Peter Friedman), says he has inherited the apartment from his late father Max. Mathilde tells him she sold the apartment, in the home her grandfather built, to Max with the proviso that she live there at his expense for her lifetime but, to the fury of her daughter Chloé (Jan Maxwell), she rents a room to the near-destitute Mathias.

That' s the springboard for Horovitz's eloquent, funny, brilliantly-paced plunge into parent-child relationships. Chloé and Matthias, both 50, still rage with the anguish of the unloved children they always felt they were. Ninety-two-year-old Mathilde tries to convey to them the restrictions and culture of another generation and justify the magnificent selfishness that goes hand in hand with her glowing joie de vivre. Although she acknowledges Max was the love of her life, she met him after she was married and when he was poor. Her choices, then and now, reverberate through the lives of Chloé and Mathias who fall in love.

Max has posthumously sent Mathias home to two women who love him but there' s a predictable bombshell in store. Max might not have predicted what Mathilde would do and the playwright doesn't quite let us in on what Chloé will make of it. The ending can be construed as up in the air but the play isn't about neat. It's a satisfying ending that leaves you wanting more. While My Old Lady will inspire a host of sidewalk critics who will debate the pros and cons of the playwright's choices it will speak to anyone who has ever been a parent or a child.

Horovitz debuted the play at his own Gloucester Stage Company in Massachusetts. It makes its West Coast Premiere at the Doolittle Theatre as part of the Mark Taper Forum's 35th Anniversary Season because a sold out Flower Drum Song has been extended in the Forum itself. Producer Tom Viertel, who holds the Broadway option on My Old Lady, was in the opening night audience.

Horovitz has called this play his Valentine to Paris, a city where his work is immensely popular. SiânP hillips' Mathilde personifies the romantic image of a Parisienne and projects the powerful enchantment that could sustain a 50-year love affair. She has the panache and savoir faire of a woman who gets her way and, if she doesn't, makes it. Peter Friedman brings a wonderful hapless vitality to Matthias and Jan Maxwell makes a fierce poised Chloé.

Director David Esbjornson never lets the show sag nor does he trivialize its pain and conflicts. Star billing should be given to John Lee Beatty's evocative high-ceilinged set whose molded cornices and floor-to-ceiling satin curtains tower like fragments of forgotten ritual over the casual shabby furniture which Mathilde and Chloé imbue with their own grace. Scott Zielinski's warm and shadowy lighting design reflects the play's mysteries of the past and the present.

Reviewed at Doolittle Theatre in Los Angeles, January 4, 2002.
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