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by Margaret Croyden

Photo of Margaret Croyden
Margaret Croyden is a theater reviewer and essayist for the New York Theatre Wire.

"My Old Lady," An Old Melodrama
by Israel Horovitz
The Promenade Theater
Broadway and 76 Street
opened October 3, 20002
Reviewed October 8 2002 by Margaret Croyden

Israel Howovitz has a bad habit: he overwrites, over-indulges, and overstates, so that his play "My Old Lady" lacks a central focus. Which makes it difficult to become involved or grasp his dominant ideas--that is, if he has any.

The three character play consists of the 92 year old Madame Giffard (Sian Phillips)--maybe the heroine of the work, maybe not--her daughter, Chloe (Jan Maxwell) and a mysterious interloper, Mathias Gold (Peter Friedman) who comes to Paris to claim the old lady's apartment he inherited from his father. He soon discovers that the old lady can live in the apartment forever through a prior arrangement with his father. Which means that Mathias can only get the apartment after the old lady dies. Madame Giffard's daughter Chloe, for some mysterious reason, is hostile and angry right from the start.

When her mother invites Mathias to stay in the apartment, since he is broke and obviously lost, she becomes irate. We soon figure out that these three will eventually discover that they have much in common. But it would be unkind to reveal the developments. Suffice it to say, everyone in the play has a problem and a secret, and there are misunderstandings galore; each one feels the awful past, which results in a bevy of recriminations, accusations, condemnations, and rage spilling out on each other--endlessly. However, all the dramatic and tragic events have already happened--in the past--and are explained to the audience ad infinitum, so that the entire play consists of exposition. The characters describe their emotions, their reactions, their circumstances, and past situations that affected them and continue to haunt them--particularly their relationship to their parents. The playwright concocts stories on top of stories, each more sensational than the other: Horovitz likes to pile it on. With no real action to push the play along, we suspected that a melodramatic denouement would have to be imposed. And it was.

Try as he did to squeeze out emotion, the play wright could not prevent tedium setting in. To begin with, Mathias, who claims the apartment, is a bore. He constantly refers to himself as a loser and endlessly harps on the nasty relationship between him and his father. You get the feeling that maybe his father was right; this man is a self-pitying complaining nudge-- not very appealing. He is given full range to act out his misery over and over again (we get the point, really we do, why go over it again?) so that he becomes the center of the story overshadowing the more interesting character of the old lady. As for the daughter Chole, she is full of rage and angst. It turns out that she, like Mathias, is searching for love, and also feels mistreated by her parents, especially her mother--the old lady of the title. While the young ones rant and rave about the past, the least belligerent of them--the old lady-- gets all the blame. So we have still another play about dysfunctional families, another play about loners and losers searching for love (denied by their parents) when they are, in fact, incapable of loving anyone but themselves.

"My Old Lady" with its obvious melodramatic plot and sub plots--is a staged soap opera, more an old fashioned radio play with its continual talk, talk, talk. To succeed with this kind of drama, where the only action consists of recalling the past, one must create extraordinary characters and render their emotions in exquisite and moving language. This is not Mr. Horovitz's forte, unfortunately.

Sian Phillips in the part of the old lady tries to give weight to her character. She succeeds somewhat, but the dialogue does not help her. Peter Feldman in the role of Mathias, the main talker in the play is just that--a talker. He has not got the variety, or the nuances necessary to hold the audience. Not that it is his fault; he has been given a hopeless task. Nor has he been helped by the director David Esbjornson. Jan Maxwell as Chloe, the daughter, shows considerable talent and is interesting to watch, up to a point. She is one of those actors who mumbles through a role, an example of the extreme realistic school of acting. She behaves as though she were in her own living room. She is in a living room, but it's on the stage in a theater and we have got to hear her--clearly. In contrast to Sian Phillips whose voice and diction, though she affects a French accent, is powerful, Ms. Maxwell's work is diminished by her muffled, often incomprehensible speech.

Finally, Sian Phillips is to be congratulated. Everything she has done on stage and television has been admirable. Watching her give credibility to the role is a pleasure. Clearly she has presence. Still she deserves a better play next time. [Croyden]

Margaret Croyden's latest book, "Conversations With Peter Brook, 1970-2000," will be published in the spring by Farrar Straus and Giroux.

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