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New Phoenix Theatre rises for its 22nd season with MY OLD LADY, a living room drama.

THE BASICS:  MY OLD LADY, a play by Israel Horovitz directed by Michael Lodick, starring Eileen Dugan, Anne Gayley, Richard Lambert opened for Curtain Up! on September 15 and runs through October 7, Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 with one matinee on Sunday afternoon, October 1, at The New Phoenix Theatre, 95 Johnson Park (853-1334). All Thursdays are “pay what you can” nights. Run time: Two hours with one 15-minute intermission.

THUMBNAIL SKETCH:  A feckless, dissolute middle-aged man (no savings, no job, three failed marriages, anger issues and an alcohol problem) inherits a Paris apartment from the father he hated. Selling the place would take care of a lot of problems. Upon arrival, he finds an elderly woman living there with her rather prickly daughter. It turns out that through the French system of “viager” [vee-ah-ZHAY] the old lady has lifetime rights to stay. Over the course of a week, everyone finally faces the past and the man (who’s almost 60) finally grows up and is ready to face the future. If you must know more, and don’t mind spoilers, you can watch the clip “Israel Horovitz on My Old Lady.”

THE PLAYERS, THE PLAY, AND THE PRODUCTION: We know that award-winning American playwright Horovitz likes to follow that time-tested advice: “Write about what you know.” For example, his most famous play, AUTHOR! AUTHOR! concerns a playwright’s trials and tribulations getting his play produced. And, based on his play MY OLD LADY, we might guess that he’s Jewish, divides his time between the U.S. and France, and has been married three times, and we’d be right on all three.

If it helps you calibrate, this play could easily fit at The Jewish Repertory Theatre based on topics (multi-generational, family resentments, The Holocaust), the small ensemble cast (just three people) and simple set requirements. Technically, in the end it’s a comedy, and while it does have some great laugh lines, it’s pretty dark.

The direction was good, with blocking that kept things moving (a problem with a living room drama that has a very few characters mouthing lots and lots of dialog). And, the three actors are all seasoned theater professionals, each holding both multiple acting and directing credits on different stages, so you know that you’re in good hands.

…the three actors are all seasoned theater professionals, each holding both multiple acting and directing credits on different stages, so you know that you’re in good hands.

Chris Wilson’s Set Design of the French apartment is brilliant, with some parts detailed and realistic, for example a fireplace and a set of French doors, but with the overall shape only suggested by suspended moldings, giving the impression of openness, light, and air as well as the sense that there are other rooms in the apartment, just as there are other secrets to be revealed on stage.

As usual, Tom Makar’s Sound Design nails it: very clever, very nostalgic, very French.

However, I had three problems. First, the wonderful Anne Gayley as the aged Mathilde Girard and the masterful Eileen Dugan as her middle-aged daughter Chloe Girard were forced to put on French accents for the entire two hours. Why, why, why? We get it. They’re French. A couple of “bonjours” in their opening dialog and we could move on. I don’t know what percent of an actor’s concentration must be used to keep up a foreign accent, but it’s concentration that could be put to good use elsewhere. And, let’s be honest, it’s almost impossible to maintain an accent 100% over two hours.

The second problem was the casting of Richard Lambert, whom I love, and who was so perfect recently in his roles in HARVEY and LIPS TOGETHER, TEETH APART, both at The New Phoenix.  To be sure, the script requirement simply reads: “MATHIAS ‘JIM’ GOLD – 55; American; still handsome.” Check, check, check. But as the play gets going, we find that he’s supposed to be not just an ugly American, and a self-centered alcoholic, but an obnoxious New Yorker, too. I’m sorry, but Richard Lambert is just too nice a guy.

And the third problem is that this play is so complicated. There’s a lot of French history thrown at you, and while the dialog cleverly gives you some context, getting everyone’s “back story” bogged things down. In his Director’s Notes, Michael Lodick writes: “I believe the play gives us a better degree of understanding of the complexities of each character than did the movie, adapted and directed by the playwright….” I didn’t see the movie, but I’m sure that’s right. Everyone knows that movies always leave stuff out and are never as good as the book. My feeling is that MY OLD LADY would make an even better novel in which the author could have the luxury to slowly reveal situations. I understand that this play was a huge success in France where the audiences would have certainly been more up to speed. So, before you go, besides reading about the viager system, you might also read up a bit on the Vichy government during the Nazi occupation and know something about the politician Francois Mitterand.

With MY OLD LADY, Anne is returning to the Phoenix theater for the first time in 22 years!

Here’s a fun fact: Before the Phoenix was even a theater company, the very first play that was performed on the Johnson Park stage was KEELEY AND DU and it starred both Anne Gayley and Eileen Dugan. With MY OLD LADY, Anne is returning to the Phoenix theater for the first time in 22 years!

Next up at the Phoenix: CINDERELLA, described as “a new, physicalized, ensemble-driven version of the beloved classic, adapted for our times by Artistic Director Kelli Bocock-Natale,” opens on November 17 and runs through December 16, 2017.

*HERD OF BUFFALO (Notes on the Rating System)

ONE BUFFALO: This means trouble. A dreadful play, a highly flawed production, or both. Unless there is some really compelling reason for you to attend (i.e. you are the parent of someone who is in it), give this show a wide berth.

TWO BUFFALOS: Passable, but no great shakes. Either the production is pretty far off base, or the play itself is problematic. Unless you are the sort of person who’s happy just going to the theater, you might look around for something else.

THREE BUFFALOS: I still have my issues, but this is a pretty darn good night at the theater. If you don’t go in with huge expectations, you will probably be pleased.

FOUR BUFFALOS: Both the production and the play are of high caliber. If the genre/content are up your alley, I would make a real effort to attend.

FIVE BUFFALOS: Truly superb–a rare rating. Comedies that leave you weak with laughter, dramas that really touch the heart. Provided that this is the kind of show you like, you’d be a fool to miss it!

Written by Peter Hall

Peter Hall

Peter Hall continues trying to figure out how "it" all works. For over 20 years, as a producer and program host on WNED Classical (94.5 FM), he's conducted over 1,000 interviews with artists as he asks them to explain, in layman's terms, "what's the big picture here?" These days Peter can be heard regularly on Sunday afternoons from 1 to 5.

On “Theater Talk” (heard Friday mornings at 6:45 and 8:45 a.m. on WBFO 88.7 FM) his favorite question of co-host Anthony Chase is simply "What's goin' on?" As mentioned recently in Buffalo Spree magazine, Peter's "Buffalo Rising reviews are the no-holds barred 'everyman's' take."

A member of Buffalo's Artie Awards Committee, Peter holds a B.A. in Comparative Literature from Columbia University and an M.B.A. from SUNY at Buffalo. For over twenty-five years he was an adjunct professor for Canisius College’s Richard J. Wehle School of Business.

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