If Americans have learned anything in the past year, it's that prickly notions of morality have not retired into quaintness but refuse to be ignored. Despite an ever-churning culture steamrolling into the 21st century, it's fair to wonder, when perspectives ***image1***collide, if we've run out of elasticity.
That collision and brittle breaking point is half the fun of watching My Old Lady, a 1996 creation of playwright Israel Horovitz. At first, with a sweet Parisian setting and a stock cast of characters there's no reason to suspect immersion into a timely moral storm; I arrived looking forward to an evening of Golden Girls-style hijinks featuring a worldly, intelligent old Frenchwoman and a bumbling, crass American. But I walked out stunned, a regular deer in the headlights.
The story begins with the uncouth entrance of Mathias (Jonathan Richards), a 55-year-old, disheveled loser from the States with the good luck to inherit a fabulous apartment in the heart of Paris from his estranged, and now deceased, father. Unbeknownst to him, his father bought the apartment under an ancient law allowing the place to be purchased below market value as long as the current tenant is allowed to remain for the rest of her life. Not only is the joke on daddy because the tenant, 94-year old Mathilde (Lois Viscoli), has outlived him but the son has now inherited a pricey monthly nut. Mathias is crushed by the debt and ends up staying with Mathilde because he has nowhere else to go.
The first two acts are pleasant and predictable with all the requisite France vs. America jokes. Richards is adept at making us recoil from brash American utterances and mannerisms, especially in the ***image2***face of Viscoli's abundant charm as the joyful profligate who'd hung out with Hemingway and had a fling with Django Reinhardt in the "innocent" years between the wars. But the early play, like the '20s, lulls the audience into a false sense of security. One after another, hidden secrets arise, issues mingle and finally explode onto the stage. The drama soars as Mathias argues bitterly with Mathilde's daughter Chloe (Karen Leigh) and then, of course, falls in love with her. Family secrets spill from every closet and last act makes your eyes bug out of your head with revelations. The audience is stretched from sitcom complacency to nauseous exhilaration with the change-up from Lifetime channel formulae to a furious slalom through eros and thanatos.
The result is an unanticipated compromise between Old World resignation and New World righteousness. The play on the whole expertly conveys that personal, moral entanglements are elastic indeed, but, merde!-it stings when it all snaps back.