REVIEW by Anthony Chase: MY OLD LADY at New Phoenix Theater

My Old Lady is a minor play by a major playwright that has, over the years, enticed some remarkable actors with its delicious characters and delightful reversals. Israel Horovitz wrote the play. Peter Friedman, Siân Phillips, and Jan Maxwell were the original New York cast. Kevin Kline, Maggie Smith, and Kristin Scott Thomas appeared in the film.

The announcement of the cast at New Phoenix Theatre – Eileen Dugan, Anne Gayley, and Richard Lambert – confirms in my mind (with no real evidence to support me) that the sole reason the play was chosen to open their season, was to give these wonderful players a chance to play together.

Formulaic and contrived, the script is, nevertheless delightful. Feisty old lady will have her way. Lovers will be united. A loser will be redeemed. And all with luscious doses of French accents, and wistful tales of life’s regrets.

Mathias has inherited an apartment in Paris from his estranged father. Middle-aged, thrice divorced and without a penny to his name, Mathias’s plan is to sell the place and start life anew. When he arrives to take possession, however, he discovers, not only is the apartment occupied, in a uniquely French arrangement, what he has actually inherited is a debt – at least in the short term. The apartment was sold as a “viager,” meaning his father bought the place at a very low price, and in exchange, he is obliged to pay the previous owner a pension until she dies. After that, it is his. The old lady is 90 years old with no plans to leave anytime soon. Add to the mix, her angry and protective daughter also lives there.

Under the direction of Michael Lodick, Gayley, Lambert, and Dugan squeeze the arrangement for all its dramatic juice. Gayley is particularly perfect as Mathilde. She makes the conversations about politics, morality, relationships and all the eternal verities endlessly engaging. Richard Lambert is well suited to the part, and manages to make this loser endearing. I do wish he would resort to shouting, one of his signature strategies, more judiciously, but this role in this play invites such indulgences. Dugan deploys the uptight-harridan-who-melts-to-reveal-a-heart-of-gold narrative quite expertly.

The set by Chris Wilson is marvelous. Distant flats of wallpaper behind empty wall frames give the impression of faded old-world grandeur. It is simply excellent, and beautifully lit by Chris Cavanagh.

Thu-Sat at 8. New Phoenix Theatre, 95 Johnson Park (853-1334).