Israel Horovitz's comedy “My Old Lady,” which opened Friday night at the New Phoenix, has a charming and absorbing premise.
The play opens with Jim, a middle-aged man from New York, arriving in Paris to collect on his inheritance an apartment owned by his late father. Except there he finds Mathilde—the old lady—living there. And she will continue to, contractually speaking, until she dies.
These are the terms of a French “viager” agreement, in which a buyer can sell their apartment at a reduced rate in exchange for a lifetime of mortgage payments. The two are forced to share the space, against their wishes.
It's a scenario rife for comedic confusion and dramatic tension, however it’s not always clear which direction Horovitz intended to take. It can be both, of course, but that would require some clearer edits. Director Michael Lodick manages to make it all feel natural, even if much of the time these characters feel penned up in a personal prison. It’s an engrossing plot, until it becomes difficult to manage. Act two is particularly manipulative.
Richard Lambert plays Jim with the same feverish passion that he plays most characters. He comes off fully engaged in his role, until he suffocates the character. We miss out on discovering Jim so long as Lambert insists on explaining him to us. It's a shame; both men are rich with curiosity, but stand in their own way too much.
Anne Gayley and Eileen Dugan are moving as Mathilde and her daughter, Chloe, respectively. Both play French accents with striking consistency, a refreshing detail. They make a convincing modern family of an aging mother and her put-upon grown daughter, just now coming to terms with their secrets.
Chris Wilson’s inspired set design is an unspoken fourth character, utilizing the depth of the New Phoenix stage to give the play added perspective on a family’s skin and bones. Such a storied dwelling this is.
"My Old Lady"
3 stars (out of four)
Performed by New Phoenix Theatre, 95 Johnson Park. 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, runs through Oct. 7.
Tickets available online and by phone. Tickets: $30 to $20. 853.1334