theater (reviews)

review: Out of the Mouths of Babes

Written by Israel Horovitz
Directed by Barnet Kellman
Featuring Francesca Choy-Kee, Angelina Fiordellisi, Judith Ivey, Estelle Parsons
Cherry Lane Theatre
June 7, 2016 – July 17, 2016 

production site

Angelica Fiordellisi, Francesca Choy-Kee, Judith Ivey and Estelle Parsons. Photo by Carol Rosegg

(L-R) Angelina Fiordellisi, Francesca Choy-Kee, Judith Ivey, Estelle Parsons. Image by Carol Rosegg.

Resist the instinct to toss away the two-sided insert in your Playbill for Israel Horowitz‘s newest offering, Out of the Mouth of Babes. This sheet with wall layout line drawings and annotations that look like IKEA instructions is actually a fascinating key to the artwork that adorns the walls Neil Patel‘s Paris apartment set for the production. I spent several pre-show minutes using the key to link bold-faced names from stage, television, and film (including Rosie O’Donnell, Joel Grey, Billy Dee Williams, Tina Louise, Eve Plumb, Tony Dow and others) in the drawing schematic to the set wall, and wondering how the images would be folded into the story’s narrative. The answer is: they weren’t at all. The play itself, one soon realizes, takes less concentration to follow than the art key insert. While the wall images provide a pleasant distraction, they aren’t part of the narrative. The secrets of one unnamed man’s not very varied past (one woman left for another, at decade intervals, so that he’s always with a woman between 20 and 30 years old, and increasingly younger than himself) are quickly understood and endlessly repeated amidst a looming and pervasive masculine sensibility that is, in the end, the most opaque and least interesting element of all.

Four loves of a recently deceased unnamed 100-year-old unnamed man convene in a Paris apartment they all at one point shared with him, in overlapping tenures. The deceased Parisian (or American ex-patriot, I can’t recall if this is ever made clear) seemed never to have been without female companionship throughout his long life. We know that he was a professor at the Sorbonne and apparently had long relationships with at least three women from the Boston area (our oldest three exes), and that all of the woman seemed to have been students of his at one point or another. From the assembled women aged from 80s to 20s, it is clear (and repeated several times, as if each character has to do the math) that our Lothario reached back a decade or two with each new lover, even as he aged, keeping an a 20-year gap between himself and the current woman in his life. Our characters enter in rough age order: Evelyn (Estelle Parsons) in her 80s, Evvie (Judith Ivey) in her 60s, Janice (Angelina Fiordellisi) who wasn’t invited but saw the death announcement so found her own way there, and the 20-something youngster Marie-Belle (Francesca Choy-Kee) who has convened the group with no motive other than to build family and honor the ancient “he” with his harem, his legacy.

We learn that the older women enjoyed his adeptness at oral sex, that the younger woman can still feel his presence as a visiting spirit (think Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit or the film Ghost, with the spirit talking to and tickling her, reducing her to fits of giggles), and sullen Janice is always on the verge of suicide (now there’s a laugh riot). These are smart women characters of varying sensibilities — Evelyn married him and left him when she found him cheating with Evvie; Evvie never married him but left when she found him cheating with Janice; and there seemed to be a gap of some time — and perhaps several additional women who haven’t been invited to this postmortem reunion — between Janice and the final youngster Marie-Belle.

The piece is directed by Barnet Kellman as either inert line readings or madcap physical shtick involving an open window from characters or suspected to through which they threaten to leap. Witty lines receive witty deliveries (and earned audience responses from the skilled actresses), but the characters make little sense. The dialogue and tone of interaction becomes cloying and when the purportedly intelligent women snipe at one another rather than unpack their similarities, we see only that Horovitz provides a profoundly stereotypical male perspective of women, and it grows old. There are no motivations for lurking animosities other than decades old jealousies that would long have been forgotten or at least tempered over time. While he is absent and unnamed, in other words, the man that links the women retains control of the story and this theatrical world.

After spending two hours with these characters and this set, I wanted to move into the apartment but I knew the characters no better than when they first entered. What attracted each of these highly intelligent women to this particular man? What kept them with him? Who draped the mirror of the apartment and why? And how infuriating to have four women spend hours talking about an unnamed “he” without learning much about each other.

© Martha Wade Steketee (June 20, 2016)

Playwright | Israel Horovitz
Director | Barnet Kellman
Set Design | Neil Patel
Lighting | Paul Miller
Sound Design | Leon Rothenberg
Costume Design | Joseph G. Aulisi
Action Coordinator | Rick Sordelet

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