Out of the Mouths of Babes
Review by Kathleen Campion
When the lights come up, those of us in the dark are — well, in the dark. On stage, two women of a certain age circle each other — they know the complicated history they share, but we don’t. We are playing catch-up as they thrust and parry. Evelyn (Estelle Parsons) and Evvie (Judith Ivey) put each other in place. Evelyn is the second wife, and Evvie is the woman who intervened in that marriage.
Ultimately, four women gather at a loft apartment in Paris’ s 19th Arrondissement on the occasion of an old man’s passing. He has married some of them and loved all of them. Some of them have displaced others in his life and his bed. Each of the women has her version of him, as well as her version of the others.
The title here is dead on — it is the mouths of these babes that keep us roaring in empathetic laughter. Nothing much happens. They talk, they rail, they laugh, they sting, they recognize their shared pasts — but nothing much happens. Israel Horovitz has written women who talk to one another the way grown up women talk to one another. It is the rare man — much less the rare writer — who has that ear. The women are blunt with one another, as they recapitulate the succession of women the old man chose and then discarded, each time for a far younger woman. It’s funny in its bitchiness and painful at its root. There is a philosophical underpinning, as two of the four characters deal with a hard-earned perspective on what men are, and what women are, and how we all feel about that, these many years later. The two leads maintain an artful tension that’s not so much the artistry of ballet as the rigor of Philippe Petit.
You never really forget that you are watching Estelle Parsons and Judith Ivey on stage. Don’t get me wrong, these “babes” completely inhabit their characters — Evelyn and Evvie — but they are, after all, the skilled and savvy Parsons and Ivey! So, it takes a lot of powerful writing (Israel Horovitz) and directing (Barnet Kellman) to get us past the star power. In supporting roles, Angelina Fiordellisi (Janice) and Francesca Choy-Kee (Marie-Belle) hold their own in very accomplished company.
Since Angelina Fiordellisi — having been the producing artistic director of the Cherry Lane Theater since 1996 — sees more theater that any five of us, hers is not the usual CV of a working actor. I’m told she chose this property not just for the Cherry Lane, but for herself. She plays Janice, who is by turns suicidally depressed, then hilariously absurd. Janice has a couple of terrific speeches; her birth saga is heartbreaking, but she tells it for laughs. She is one of those characters who inhabits act one with promise and is then thrown under the expediency bus, as comic relief, in act two.
Francesca Choy-Kee plays Marie-Belle, his last very young woman. She’s engaged in getting the old man buried as close to Oscar Wilde as possible. Choy-Kee is lovely, if relentlessly, even annoyingly, upbeat. Horowitz has given her some entertaining eccentricities. Still, this American actor struggles with her character’s French accent.
Designer Neil Patel has moved us to Paris, to an elegant apartment that telescopes the modest stage at the Cherry Lane into a vast flat that seems to wander off in all directions. The dominant design features — features crucial to the plot — are beautiful 15-foot windows overlooking the canal below. A rational person understands that the stage’s back wall is dark brick, yet Patel and lighting designer Paul Miller, manage to capture the storied Parisian light and spill it across the set.
This comedy is really fun. The first act is a cascade of surprising arrivals, telling anecdotes, bitchy exchanges. It is fast paced and genuine. Unlike so much new theater, Out of the Mouths of Babes avoids second act problems; the second act is every bit as much fun as the first.
It has a niggling finale problem, but that’s not crucial. In scene-study classes, no matter how engaged the actors and the audience are, a voice in the dark ultimately says Find an ending.
In Out of the Mouths of Babes the ending — while giddy and busy and riding the wave of laughter and witty juxtapositions that have come before, feels very like that. An ending has been found but it’s not nearly as satisfying as all that came before. That is not a reason to even pause on your way to the box office.
Out of the Mouths of Babes – by Israel Horovitz; directed by Barnet Kellman
WITH: Estelle Parsons (Evelyn), Judith Ivey (Evvie), Angelina Fiordellisi (Janice), and Francesca Choy-Kee.
Designed by Neil Patel; lighting by Paul Miller; sound by Leon Rothenberg; costume design by Joseph G. Aulisi. At the Cherry Lane Theatre, 33 Commerce Street, Manhattan. Through July 31. Running time: 2 hours with one intermission.