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Review: N.E. Premiere of Israel Horovitz Comedy, OUT OF THE MOUTHS OF BABES

Out of the Mouths of Babes

Written & Directed by Israel Horovitz; Set Design, Jenna McFarland Lord; Costume Design, Jane Alois Stein; Lighting Design, Russ Swift; Sound Design, David Remedios; Wig Stylist, Troy Siegfried; Properties Design, Esme Shaw; Stage Manager, Jenna Wooden; Assistant Director, Annika von Rosenvinge

CAST (in alphabetical order): Sarah Hickler, Obehi Janice, Paula Plum, Debra Wise

Performances through September 2 at Gloucester Stage Company, 267 East Main Street, Gloucester, MA; Box Office 978-281-4433 or www.gloucesterstage.com

Gloucester Stage Company rounds the corner into the second half of its 38th season with the New England premiere of Israel Horovitz's comedy, Out of the Mouths of Babes. The second play in his trilogy dealing with Americans in Paris takes place in a spacious apartment in the City of Light, where four diverse women meet to remember and memorialize the recently departed 100-year old man who had lived there and loved them all during the last half century. Horovitz directs a quartet of actresses who know how to handle the bounty of banter the playwright provides them. Paula Plum returns to Gloucester Stage along with newcomers to the North Shore theater, Sarah Hickler, Obehi Janice, and Debra Wise.

Horovitz is a comic wordsmith whose dialogue sets off ripples of laughs about situations ranging from mundane to absurd. In the hands of a less-skilled writer, some of these scenes could be fodder for a television sitcom, but Horovitz differentiates his characters well and lets their quips and speeches define them. In addition, each of the actors uses her own skill set to provide a fully-realized characterization. Plum's Evvie is the defensive one, quick to jump on a verbal jab, real or imagined, while Wise's Evelyn uses her elder status to say pretty much whatever she feels like saying, although generally with an air of snobby politeness. The depressive, needy Janice is brought to life by Hickler's hangdog expression and posture of surrender, in stark contrast to the exuberance of the youngest lover, Marie-Belle, played with flair and a delicious accent by Ms. Janice. As an ensemble, they make beautiful music together.

And, speaking of music, Horovitz employs a musical trope to evoke the decades that each character was in residence in the Paris apartment, and appropriate tunes fill the dark space during scene changes. Evvie was the 60s girl who listened to The Beatles and the Everly Brothers; Evelyn preceded her and favored the stylings of Elvis, Sinatra, Dean Martin, Tony Bennett, and Ella Fitzgerald; a variety of Gallic-flavored music fills the air for the current denizen, the Senegalese transplant, Marie-Belle. At one point, Plum sits at the piano in the corner and plunks out the Everly's "Dream," and Wise and Janice join her to harmonize on a refrain or two.

Hickler's character is otherwise occupied at the time, hoping to succeed in her lifelong quest to make a big splash. It is a running joke throughout the play that two of the man's wives tried to kill themselves, but fate interceded. Janice still carries an unrequited torch for him and, even though he is dead, nevertheless she persists in her attempts. Marie-Belle posits that he is with them in spirit and that she continues to communicate with him, encouraging Janice to feel his presence and his love for her. Evelyn and Evvie are entirely skeptical, with Wise and Plum exercising lots of eye rolls.

All that these women have in common is this man (never named), but it gradually becomes clear that his relationships with them were as varying as their personalities. An artist and teacher at the Sorbonne, he came to know each of them when they were young art students. Lurking not too far beneath the surface of the plot is the unseemliness of those liaisons, a theme that one dares to exploit for laughs at his own peril in this day and age. By their own admission, the women reveal the vast difference in their ages when their romances began (Evvie - 22, He - 53; Janice - 23, He - 63; Marie-Belle - 17, He - 79), but the predatory behavior is normalized in the world of the play. It is also unfortunately clear that the lives of the three older woman were negatively impacted in some long-term ways by the experience. As much as they see him as having been the love of their lives, they also think he was a son of a bitch. They may have come into the relationship damaged by their upbringing, but his interest in them was self-serving and part of a serial pattern.

Perhaps this troublesome characteristic of the plot contributes to the unraveling of Out of the Mouths of Babes midway through the second act. The first act is fun and games as we get to know the women and they get to know each other, and the first scene after intermission is rich with great lines well-delivered. However, when Marie-Belle narrates the extensive chronology of his lovers, and then tries desperately to convince the others to stay for an extended sleepover with the belief that he wants them all to be together, focus is lost and the story founders. I'd prefer that the women go their separate ways with a better understanding of that part of their personal history, tucking away the nostalgic memories, and feeling energized by their sisterhood and stronger for having outlived the s.o.b.

Photo credit: Gary Ng (Obehi Janice, Paula Plum, Debra Wise)



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