Monday, May 14, 2012

My Old Lady

My Old Lady at Harlequin

Reviewed by Alec Clayton

Top: Karen Nelsen as Mathilde and
Jason Haws as Mathias;
bottom: Haws and Laura Hanson as Chloe.
Photos by David Stein

Once again Harlequin Productions and Israel Horovitz team up for an outstanding play.
My Old Lady opened at Harlequin on Thursday. This is the fourth Horovitz play in four consecutive years Harlequin has produced. By now local audiences have come to know what to expect when this particular duo of playwright and director (Scot Whitney) team up.
But Whitney says this one is different. So does the playwright.
Horovitz wrote:
“When I began writing My Old Lady, I wanted to break away from the sort of plays I’d been writing during the previous ten years… working-class dramas set in my adored and adopted hometown, Gloucester, Massachusetts. After twelve full-length Gloucester-based plays, enough was becoming too much. I never intended to be the Bard of Gloucester.”
Prior to seeing the show I interviewed Whitney for an article in  Thurston Talk. He said, “I think people are going to be really surprised by this play. It’s a wonderfully sweet play. It’s his Valentine to Paris.”
Sweet? A valentine to Paris? Well yes, I guess you could call it that. But don’t let that fool you. It’s classic Horovitz all the way, which means comedy that lulls you into relaxing into an expectation of a laugh fest before slamming you with gut-wrenching drama and then once he’s got you writhing in your seat in agony, easing back into comic relief. That’s what Horovitz does, and what better director to present his plays than Whitney — who loves going all out with comedy and drama as indicated by his obsession with Shakespeare, from the insane humor of A Midsummer Night’s Dream to the murder and mayhem of Hamlet and Macbeth? Not a season goes by without a Shakespeare and a Horovitz.
My Old Lady is a three-character play starring Laura Hanson, Jason Haws and Karen Nelsen. It is set in one room of a large Paris apartment with windows overlooking the Jardin du Luxembourg (elegant set by Linda Whitney with lush lighting effects by Nat Rayman).
Mathias (Haws) is a loser, an unpublished poet and novelist, flat broke and down on his luck after three failed marriages. He inherits this luxury apartment in Paris from his father, whom he hated. He arrives with no money, intending to sell the apartment, only to discover that there is an old lady living in his apartment, 90-something year old Mathilde (Nelsen). Under the strange provisions of an arcane French law she has the right to stay there until she dies. Mathilde and Mathias are oil and water from the get-go, but she invites him to stay there while he sorts things out. She seems to get some sadistic pleasure out of playing with his emotions. Then her 55-year-old daughter Chloe (Hanson) shows up, and she immediately and virulently despises Mathias.
Gradually Chloe and Mathilde reveal to Mathias that they already know a lot about him as layer after layer of their life stories are peeled away.
All three actors are captivating.
Last seen at Harlequin in Under a Mantle of Stars, Nelsen is much younger than the character she plays. Intelligently, they did not make her up to look 94 (Mathilde claims to be 92 but Chloe says she lies about her age). Her facial expressions and manner convey a spry elderly woman, and extreme makeup would draw attention to the makeup instead of to the character. Nelsen doesn’t need the makeup.
Hanson is convincing as the self-possessed Chloe. She maintains a balance between emotional outbursts and tight self-control. Her portrayal of Chloe is realistic. Her timing, and especially her hesitant pauses, say a lot about Chloe’s conflicted feelings about Mathias.
Haws is simply amazing. He is outrageously funny and bumbling at first and then increasingly becomes wracked with self-loathing, fury, pity and pain, drinks to excess — managing to believably play a drunk without being clich├ęd — and finally becoming almost loveable despite his many flaws. Such a tour de force job of acting is seldom seen on stage or in the movies.

The title of my Thurston Talk article was Harlequin’s Love Affair with Israel Horovitz. Readers who saw Sins of the Mother, Six Hotels or Unexpected Tenderness understand why Harlequin loves Horovitz. If you see My Old Lady you’ll understand too. Plus you’ll see why this internationally celebrated playwright keeps asking Harlequin Productions to produce his plays. It’s because they have proved they know how do it right.

WHEN: Thursdays through Saturdays, 8p.m., Sundays 2 p.m. through June 2.
WHERE: State Theater, 202 E. 4th Ave., Olympia
TICKETS: prices vary, call for details
INFORMATION: 360-786-0151;

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