Out of the Mouths of Babes

Israel Horovitz Play at Gloucester Stage

By: - Aug 28, 2017

Out of the Mouths of Babes
By Israel Horovitz
Directed by Israel Horovitz
Set, Jenna McFarland Lord; Costumes, Jane Alois Stein; Lighting, Russ Swift; Sound, David Remedio; Wig, Troy Siegfried.
Cast: Susan Hickler (Janice), Obehi Janice (Marie-Belle), Paula Plum (Evvie), Debra Wise (Evelyn)
Gloucester Stage Company
August 11 to Septrember 2, 2017
New England Premiere

The premise of Out of the Mouths of Babes by Israel Horovitz, having its New England premiere at Gloucester Stage Company, has potential as a comedic drama configured as a farce.

In the Paris apartment of a just deceased hundred-plus-years-old Lothario, and former professor at the Sorbonne, four women have gathered. Two have been invited with business class tickets and the third wants to know why she wasn’t comped. The three American women were his former students and lovers as is the current, much younger, French-African woman who seemingly has hosted them.

At one time or another the four women resided in the apartment.

They range in age from Evelyn (Paula Plum) his first wife in her mid eighties, Evvie (Debra Wise) a decade or so younger who broke up that marriage,  the somewhat younger Janice (Sarah Hickler) who was next in his bed, and finally the youngest, Marie-Belle (Obehi Janice), who was seduced by him at 17 when he was in his 70's. Apparently, he died in her arms doing what he liked most. By then he was probably on IV Viagra.

That sounds funny and from time to time it is. Particularly when Janice is intent on tossing herself out the window and into the Seine below. We call that insane or inseine and my gag is at least as awful as that of the playwright who less than amusingly milks a few tropes.

It is fair to say that I was having less fun than the sold out audience. They howled at every punch line and awarded the performance a standing ovation.

With more than 70 plays to his credit, and status as a founder of Gloucester Stage some tour decades ago, Horovitz is rightly respected and loved in his adapted home town. The early plays were set in Wakefield. The current play with Paris as its backdrop (with three out of four American characters) is the second of a trilogy. The first play, “My Old Lady,” was made into a film directed by the author, featuring Dame Maggie Smith in the title role. The third yet to be written play, not planned as a comedy, will focus on the theme of terrorism.

The oeuvre of Horovitz conflates gravitas and humor. That’s one approach to having audiences devour challenging subject matter.

Some 50 of his plays have been produced in France with the playwright often on hand to direct them. This Anglo/ French play has a Gallic accent Moliere or less.

It is dialects and really awful accents that are problematic. What starts with promise wears out its welcome once we have run through the playwright's gags, reversals, surprises and tropes.

We are informed that brash and crass Evvie is from South Boston while the mordant and suicidal Janice is from Cambridge. Horovitz has drawn Janice WASPY, deranged, depressed and as neurotic as T.S. Eliot in a four piece suit. Sarah Hickler who plays her got lots of laughs for deadpan looks and failed attempts at suicide.

The muddled accents were supposed to set up neighborhood and class identities that would delight a Professor Higgins. There is a world of different between Southie and Cambridge. But not when delivered as flat and tone deaf as was the case here.

Then there is the issue of Marie-Belle whose French accent is a shrill and hideous caricature of a Parisian one. Mon Dieu. The French are very precise about their language. They mock anyone who tries to converse with them. This is a play that desperately needed a dialect coach. Quel dommage!

The thrust set at Gloucester Stage, designed by Jenna McFarland Lord, is broad to the level of sprawling. It has a central prop of a baby grand piano that is used sparingly as well as modernist/ Bauhaus furniture. There is an eclectic installation of many framed painting and works on paper. Was the professor a wannabe collector? Does an apartment in Paris automatically equate to the home of Lost Generation patrons Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas?

The depressing design it is a signifier of clichés verbal and visual that clutter this second tier work by Horovitz. With another cast it was a hit last summer at New York’s Cherry Lane Theatre and will open this fall in London.

What is particularly problematic is having the playwright double as director. The script has potential but is sabotaged by his over the top direction. The characters are directed for the most part at warp speed. This is particularly true of Obehi Janice who has fits of hysteria when improbably tickled by the ghost of the deceased dirty old man.

Now and then we are relieved when the old woman, played well by Plum, slows down the momentum with a dash of irony. She is a woman in her 60’s playing a character some 20 years older. That is represented by a truly awful wig. Good grief. It takes more than that suitably to age a character. The director might have added some age appropriate arthritis. Without clear age differences it is too hard to swallow the enmity with her rival Evvie.

The staging is strange to say the least. Parisian apartments are notorious for being small and expensive. Here the women are set up so far apart that they are shouting at each other rather than engaging in hand-to-hand verbal combat.

It’s something, by the way, that the French do better than us. It has taken centuries for them to master the bon mot and devastating quip that dispatches rivals with rapier wit.

The final son sequitur is that the four women loved the old bounder and eventually bond as sisters in his name. That’s a stretch and you wonder how Horovitz came up with such a crazy idea.

The frustrating conclusion is that it might have worked. Perhaps with tweaking between now and London, and fresh eyes of another director, it may be a hit.

Pourquoi pas?