Israel Horovitz’s “My Old Lady,” this summer’s final Banyan Theater production, explores the light and dark sides of family inheritances — physical, spiritual, monetary and otherwise. Heavy material, but it starts out positively cute …
Although he’s a world-class drinker, Mathias Gold, aka “Jim” (Peter Thomasson), has failed at writing (three unpublished novels) and marriage (three divorces, as well). At the end of his rope and pushing 60, he comes to Paris after inheriting an apartment — and little else — from his estranged father. (It’s a formerly opulent flat in Le Marais, a little gone-to-seed, but still worth a fortune.) Mathias plans to make a quick sale and return to New York City, but he’s shocked to discover the flat has a 92-year-old tenant, Mathilde Girard (Donna Gerdes), and she’s not going anywhere. It seems his father bought the place at a discount under the terms of France’s viager law. The law stipulates that Mathilde is a tenant for life and Mathias’ father (and how his son) owes her a hefty monthly fee until she stops breathing. Mathilde happily informs him that French women live a very long time. Then she graciously allows him to stay, after accepting his watch as rent. Her daughter, Chloé (Lilian Moore), not so graciously, wants to kick him out.
So far, it seems like a fish-out-of-water comedy about an American in Paris struggling with French customs and traditions — and hilariously and inevitably falling in love with the woman with whom he constantly squabbles. But the play takes a sharp turn into Ibsen territory. Dark family secrets bubble up. The Golds’ unhappy history, it seems, is intertwined with the Girards’. Once upon a time in Paris, Mathilde and Mathias’ father had a long-running affair. Mathias and Chloé are still feeling the collateral damage — and starting to have feelings for each other.
This bittersweet comedy unfolds in Don Walker’s crisp naturalistic direction and nuanced performances from all three actors. The play’s dialectical wrangling revolves around Mathias (a philosophical stand-in for the playwright, I think), but Thomasson is the perfect performer for this argumentative character. A lesser actor would seem talky, but he keeps it real. Kudos. Gerdes’ Mathilde is more than a match for him. The script offers the actor more than the feisty-old-lady cliché to work with. Her character’s a proud member of France’s post-World War II avant garde — and her attitudes are sometimes a little too liberated for baby boomer comfort. Moore also puts in a fine portrayal of Mathilde’s daughter, Chloé. Her character has depth and inner life. But that inner life is too often implied — and Chloé never fully emerges from the shadows of subtext. To put it bluntly, she doesn’t get enough lines. That’s not to say the playwright didn’t fully imagine her, just that her material got cut. And that’s not just a wild guess.
In case you missed it, Horovitz adapted and directed his own play as a movie — an expanded version of the same story with slightly different details. Both versions are masterfully written, but at the risk of sounding like a Philistine, I think the film was better. Structurally, this feels like it wants to be a three-act play. Act. 1: A comic mix-up in France. Act 2: Ibsen-esque revelations. Act 3: Improbable love story. That’d be long for live theater, but it would work. The movie gives Mathilde and Mathias’ relationship time to brew; here, it seems rushed and improbable.
But that’s a minor detail. The heart of the play is the dark family history, not the frothy comedy or the love story. Ultimately, it’s a play about inheritance. Parents pass on many things to their children, not all of them good.