Israel Horovitz, once among New York’s best known playwrights, is today more famous in France. His play “My Old Lady,” first seen off-Broadway in 2002, is something of a love letter to that nation’s capital city.
Now, Kansas City Actors Theatre premieres the show here, in our Paris of the Plains — the first time in more than two decades that a Horovitz play has been professionally produced in KC. The wait was worth it.
The setup of “My Old Lady” sounds like a sitcom. David Fritts plays Mathias Gold, a failed novelist from a rich but dysfunctional New York family. When his emotionally distant father dies, Gold inherits a luxurious, if slightly shabby, apartment in Paris and travels there to sell the place.
On arrival, he learns — surprise! — the apartment has been occupied for decades by a widowed French lady, Mathilde (Kathleen Warfel) and her spinster daughter, Chloé (Jan Rogge). To his chagrin, Mathias learns the apartment is a “viager” — part of an ancient, only-in-France system for buying and selling real estate. The upshot is that he can’t take possession of the place until Mathilde dies. Out of kindness, or maybe pity, the old lady tells Mathias he can stay.
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Given that premise, one might think high jinks would ensue. For a while, they do. The script, clearly written by a man in love with language, is erudite and charming, with lots of titter-worthy wordplay for wordplay’s sake. There’s political commentary, too, with a bit about Vichy France that feels shockingly relevant. At moments, the dialogue rises to the level of genius. The romantic declaration “I wish we had met before we were born,” for instance, is touching and tragic, with all the brain-twisting wisdom of a Zen koan.
Things change, however. The farce of the first act quickly turns to existential angst in the second. By the third, although occasional laughs still come, we are deep in a jungle of psycho-sexual Freudian melodrama, a world that’s dark, weird and tangled enough to give Oedipus the creeps.
Fritts has the unenviable job of making us root for Gold, a thrice-divorced, deeply damaged alcoholic, a task at which the actor largely succeeds. There are, granted, a few false notes. The character is written as a New York Jew, and Fritts never captures the befuddled, world-weary, Yiddish-tinged cadences of American Ashkenazim.
That deficiency though, is more than redeemed by Fritts’ staunch refusal to play his role as merely sympathetic. Gold is no conventional romantic lead, to be sure, and there would be no use in trying to infuse the character with a typically rogue-ish charm. Fritts makes smart physical choices, too. While Gold is drunk, he fumbles once or twice trying to put a notebook in his back pocket, precisely the sort of tactile detail that turns a passable performance into a fine one.
Rogge is also excellent as the spinster daughter. When we meet her, she strides, imperious and cold, somewhere between a haughty diplomat and haughtier clerk at an upscale retail store. That distance and reserve, couched in sniffy French disdain, makes the revelation of her brokenness all the more painful.
The star of this show, though, is Warfel, magnetic as the sophisticated dowager.
Earlier this week, Meryl Streep’s Golden Globes speech got lots of attention for political reasons. In it, though, Streep also made a profoundly simple observation about acting. “An actor’s only job,” she said, “is to enter the lives of people who are different from us and let you feel what that feels like.”
But audiences cannot experience that empathy unless the acting technique is invisible. Watching Mathilde evolve from feisty widow to reminiscing libertine, through her despair, nadir and, eventually, a bizarre sort of redemption, we never once catch Warfel acting. High praise.
In the wrong hands, “My Old Lady” could easily have been a mere treatise on family trauma — like Tennessee Williams, but with champagne instead of whiskey. In another set of wrong hands, the play could be nothing but a mawkish, if deeply demented romantic comedy — much like the middling 2014 film starring Kevin Kline and Maggie Smith.
Under Darren Sextro’s direction, with a trio of fine actors moving through Bret Engle’s artfully rendered set, “My Old Lady” strikes an eminently watchable, if unsettling, balance between the two.
Kansas City Actors Theatre’s production of “My Old Lady” continues through Jan. 29 at City Stage at Union Station. See kcactors.org or call 816-361-5228.