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Theatre in Review: Out of the Mouths of Babes (Cherry Lane Theatre)

Judith Ivey, Estelle Parsons. Photo: Carol Rosegg

Practically speaking, it would be almost impossible to cast Judith Ivey and Estelle Parsons as frenemies with a complex shared past involving the same man and not get some laughs -- although playwright Israel Horovitz certainly tries. Parsons is Evelyn, formerly married to a noted professor of music at the Sorbonne who has just passed away. She was his second wife, one of a series. Ivey is also named Evelyn, aka Evvie, aka Snookie, who never wed the deceased, but was his on-and-off lover long enough to wreck a couple of his marriages. The ladies are meeting in the bohemian-chic Paris apartment that they once shared with him. Both were given business-class plane tickets to Paris for his funeral and neither of them knows why.

Evelyn is 88 ("I'm going prematurely gray myself," she says.) and Evvie is 68. "You look 68," says Evelyn. "I mean that in a good way." "How can anyone look 68 in a good way?" snaps the offended Evvie. "If I looked 68, that would be a good way," replies Evelyn, giving us a preview of the sitcom-style banter that will make up most of Out of the Mouths of Babes. Actually, Parsons in real life is an almost improbably lively and glamorous 88, which nearly kills the joke. In any case, it's fun watching her and Ivey, both of them famed for their bone-dry line readings, skeptically sizing each other up. Even early on, however, it's notable that they get their biggest laughs not from the author's gags but from their eccentric way with straight lines. Asked if she speaks French, Ivey packs so many shadings into a single-word response ("Oui.") that it is impossible not to be amused. Similarly, when Parsons, in the aftermath of a big revelation, impulsively heads for the wings, saying "I'll be back," it's hilarious, for reasons I can't quite explain.

As it happens, the ladies share more than a name and a man. Both are from Boston and were students at the Sorbonne when they met the deceased. By the way, there was another Snookie -- the first wife -- who wrote an acclaimed novel, The Voice Within, before killing herself. There are boxes of the book in one of the apartment's back rooms. And before long, Evelyn and Evvie are joined by Janice, the third wife, who once jumped out the apartment window, only to make a soft landing on a passing laundry cart. (Horovitz tries, without much success, to wring comedy from his characters' depressions and suicidal tendencies.) Janice, who is also from Boston, is an academic. (Evelyn was a journalist for the International Herald Tribune and Evvie is a screenwriter.) Her personal life is a disaster area -- I won't reveal the reasons for the breakup of her marriage to a psychiatrist, but it's an Oedipal eye-popper -- and her favorite novel is The Voice Within. Of course, she has no idea that she has a connection to the author. Janice, who is very, very sincere, seems to exist to set up jokes for Evelyn and Evvie. She notes that the deceased passed away at the age of a hundred, adding "God gave him a wonderfully long and fruitful life." "What could God have been thinking?" wonders Evvie.

One thing is for sure: Out of the Mouths of Babes is never going to pass the Bechdel Test. These ladies talk about nothing but their late lover/husband, as they spend two acts making wisecracks, rehashing the past, and making more wisecracks. The play is basically a three-way catfight, refereed by Marie-Belle, the deceased's final partner, a spiritually minded screwball who claims to still speak to him daily, when they aren't having some kind of astral plane version of sex. Among other things, Horovitz has the ladies make a series of punning jokes on the word cunnilingus, all of which I found hilarious -- the first time I heard them, when I was in high school, decades ago. Janice makes another suicide attempt, again leaping out the window, which leads to a bit of slapstick in which Marie-Belle hangs out the window, her legs shakily held by Evelyn and Evvie, who briefly contemplate letting her tumble to her death. There's also some minor-league Blithe Spirit action: when one of the ladies asks for a sign, several paintings fall off the wall at once. Marie-Belle, by the way, is thrilled to have acquired for her lover a plot at Père Lachaise cemetery. After the funeral, Evvie cracks, "It's amazing that you got him buried in a grave only 157 graves away from Oscar Wilde and only a fifteen-minute walk up the hill from Jim Morrison. I mean, that's impressive."

The kind of "naughty" boulevard comedy that, in the 1960s, would have closed on Broadway after two weeks, Out of the Mouths of Babes is lucky to be in such overqualified hands. The director, Barnet Kellman, brings his extensive resume in television comedy -- in shows like Murphy Brown and The Middle -- to give the production a polish it doesn't really deserve. As noted above, Parsons and Ivey know how to take care of themselves. As Janice, Angelina Fiordellisi plays it straight, appropriately, getting some laughs from her character's total absence of a sense of humor. As Marie-Belle, Francesca Choy-Kee ooh-la-las around the room, acting bubbly and très française, like someone who has seen the film Amélie a few too many times; it's actually a sly sendup of a character who is not to be believed.

In addition, Neil Patel's totally delightful set, complete with leaded windows and a skylight, is perfect in every detail, down to the Mariage Frères tea tin in the kitchen. The high walls are covered with paintings and photos, which, a program insert amusingly informs us, have been contributed by such artists as Tina Louise, Rosie O'Donnell, and Joel Grey. Paul Miller has provided lighting that is exquisitely attuned to each scene's time of day. Joseph G. Aulisi's costumes create a distinct look for each character, extending to their very different black mourning outfits. Leon Rothenberg's sound design includes an array of French hip-hop tunes between scenes, the Everly Brothers hit "Dream," and a handful of ambient effects.

Out of the Mouths of Babes is a pretty trashy play, but it is in the hands of professionals. If it hardly represents the best use of their time, I suspect it will be a guilty pleasure for fans of Ivey and Parsons. Does anyone have a nice vehicle for their fine talents? -- David Barbour


(21 June 2016)

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