If you can get by its being an old man’s wet dream (and god knows I’m trying), then Israel Horovitz’s “Out of the Mouths of Babes” is a droll, snappy comedy with an intoxicating whiff of “Blithe Spirit.” The play premiered off-Broadway in 2016 and is now in a crackling New England debut (through Sept. 2) by Gloucester Stage Company, which Horovitz founded almost 40 years ago.
Neither as explosive nor as politically charged as the prolific dramatist’s best works, this cheeky treatment of Americans — and American attitudes — in Paris proves nonetheless a gentle hoot. And in the GSC production, which is helmed by the author stepping lightly on his old stomping grounds, it features a variously seasoned quartet of expert actresses, all playing former loves of the same unnamed, unseen American-expat Don Juan, who may or may not still be giving heady pleasure from beyond the grave.
Horovitz has proved popular in France (more than 50 of his 70-odd plays have been performed there). Moreover, the author has spent considerable time in the land of more-cosmopolitan-than-thou, doubtless attuned to the contrasting sexual foibles of La Belle France and his native land. So, following a passel of works set in Wakefield and Gloucester, he has undertaken a trilogy set in the arguably more cultured French capital. (The first play, “My Old Lady,” was made into a film directed by the author, featuring Dame Maggie Smith in the title role.)
In “Out of the Mouths of Babes,” a 100-year-old American lothario (and charismatic music professor at the Sorbonne) — who occupied an art-filled Paris apartment for decades, sharing it with serial inamoratas — has died. And some of his ex-loves, at least a couple of them eligible for senior discounts on their plane fare, have been mysteriously summoned to the funeral. First up are elegant 88-year-old Evelyn and blousy 68-year-old Evvie, who have resented each other for decades. Then comes Janice, who has been depressed (and prone to leaping from windows, including the French ones on view here) for just about as long.
Eventually they are four, edgily sharing a sleepless night and rocky morning in the apartment where each once shared the dead man’s bed. The hostess: his youngest and only non-American conquest, the openhearted French-African Marie-Belle, whose bonhomie toward her predecessors is exceeded only by her enthused responses to the man she believes is still literally pushing her, uh, buttons.
So, is the premise a little creepy? Well, yeah. Despite some generic man-bashing and the occasional nod to the deceased as a cheating bastard, the geriatric seducer (who, however hoary he got, preferred his women dewy) is nonetheless acknowledged as the great amour of each woman’s life. Even the ones who had enough pride to walk out on him carry a big torch. Can I barf now?
Well, I might if I weren’t busy chuckling. Sure, the tongue-in-cheek use of the term “babes” in the play’s title, referring not to infants but to hotties of the female persuasion, aptly pinpoints the vintage of its sexual politics. And the play’s comedy borders on farce — though it’s bigger on exited French windows than slammed doors. But if Horovitz wrings the suicide joke like a dishrag, the vigilant monitoring of morose Janice by her fellow mourners is pretty funny. Moreover, between the sharpness of the play’s shifting alliances, the winking and wordplay of its barbed dialogue, and the comic chops of its four actresses, you sort of surrender to the smug incredibility of the set-up.
Horovitz’s direction of his work is quite stylish, the blackouts between scenes covered by a bereted, black-clad stagehand gyrating to French techno music. But the helmsman also gets credit for canny casting. In the play’s Cherry Lane Theatre premiere in New York, noted octogenarian Estelle Parsons played the octogenarian Evelyn. Here, Horovitz — like his deceased lothario — has had to go younger, casting 60-ish Underground Railway Theater artistic director Debra Wise as the haute, blunt Evelyn. In sophisticated duds and a silver wig, Wise stays wisely clear of geriatric cliché, going instead for pragmatism and a mischievous, razor-sharp wit.
As the more freewheeling, never-married connoisseur of married men, Evvie, the ever-excellent Paula Plum creates a woman as worldly as she is shambling, as vulnerable as she is shy, and as quick on her feet and her phonemes as Wise’s Evelyn. Sarah Hickler, who plays Janice as a sort of ditzy intellectual, gives fabulous facial expression and makes depression almost as funny as Beckett (to whose stage characters she compares herself). And Obehi Janice makes of the earthy, irrepressible Marie-Belle, tickled by unseen hands, indoctrinated by our unseen host, a sort of force of a better nature.
So if you don’t get up in feminist arms, or yearn to bring the dead womanizer back to life so you can kill him, “Out of the Mouths of Babes” is an enjoyable boulevard outing — aptly set in the City of Light, where that brand of light entertainment was coined.
"Out of the Mouths of Babes" runs through Sept. 2 at Gloucester Stage Company.
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