My Old Lady
My Old Lady begins like a clash-of-cultures comedy of manners, as Mathias Gold, a penniless, middle-aged American, enters the stylish Paris apartment he's inherited from his father and discovers the apartment's one drawback: Under a typically French agreement called a viager, the place comes with its previous owner, who is entitled to live on the premises until her death. Madame Mathilde Giffard is 94 (she admits only to 92), but she intends to keep on living a good long time. She communicates this with typically Gallic flair — mocking Mathias for his humorlessness, chuckling at his unspoken but transparent calculations about her probable longevity. But Mathilde's schoolteacher daughter, Chloe, is icy and hostile.
Mathilde — wisely and enchantingly played by Patty Mintz Figel — has led a life of culture and adventure. Chloe does her teaching in the impoverished banlieue, but Mama, in her day, instructed a young François Mitterand. She knew Django Reinhardt, Miles and Coltrane, also James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway and Henry Miller — but then, everyone knew Miller. And she was also the mistress of Mathias's father, an affair that started when she was 26 and continued until a year before his death. In her mind, this was a romantic and magnificent liaison: grown-up, committed and sexy, unaffected by either her marriage to a gun-loving adulterer or her lover's to Mathias's mother. So why is Mathias being such a big American baby about it?
As it turns out, he has his reasons. Mathias, as portrayed by Ken Street, is a round-cheeked, round-bodied, over-emotional shlub who's nonetheless capable of winning our pity, and who also possesses a level of piercing insight. He has been a bit of a whiner from the beginning; the play opens with his confession to Mathilde that he's a loser. After her revelation, he sinks deeper and deeper into drink, and the tone of Israel Horovitz's play changes. There's still comedy aplenty, but now we're witnessing an examination of the meaning of love, the effects of private choices in the world, the tainted legacy passed from father to son and mother to daughter. As Mathias begins to have feelings for Chloe – an effectively cool and enigmatic portrayal by Paige Lynn Larson — he realizes that she's both damaged and, just possibly, his sister. The most touching scene in the play is the one in which these two lost and lonely people almost come together.
My Old Lady doesn't moralize, and you find your sympathies swinging back and forth among the three protagonists. Yes, Mathilde's life has been self-deceiving and self-indulgent, but Mathias's aggrieved blubberiness is profoundly unappealing, and we do wonder if Chloe really had to cut herself off from life quite as rigidly as she has. So who has really wronged whom: Mathilde, who slept with Mathias's father, or Mathias, who blundered into Mathilde's quiet life of small pleasures and deep happy memories and destroyed it? And how much blame is borne by his unloving father and her nasty husband?
This Miners Alley production is well-directed by Rick Bernstein, and set director Richard Pegg has created a perfect evocation of Mathilde's apartment. Unfortunately, I attended on a Saturday night. The audience was soused, and when the play shifted from light comedy to something deeper, most of them didn't notice. They greeted Mathias's drunken scenes with happy laughter, rattling the ice in their own glasses; they snickered because a serious monologue contained the word "cock"; they exploded in delight when a grief-stricken Mathilde fainted. "Now he finally gets the apartment," someone said.
I had to fight to maintain concentration, and missed much of the play's impact. Which was a shame, because in terms of both script and performances, My Old Lady is one of the best things that Miners Alley has done.
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