Out of the Mouths of Babes, a fun new situational comedy by Israel Horovitz, explores both the light and dark sides of life. In it, four women, three older and one younger, gather on the eve of a funeral. The deceased was a man they were all either married to or lovers with. In the opening scene, Evelyn (the remarkable Estelle Parsons) and Evvie (the earthy yet fiery Judith Ivey) meet in his apartment. It is familiar to them both because they lived there at apparently separate times. However, it turns out there was some overlap, and you know what that means.
Added to the mix is the morose Janice (Angelina Fiordellisi, an actress with the commanding and stentorian voice of an old-school stage actress, and founding director of the Cherry Lane Theatre), who was not invited at first because she was thought to be dead—she has a history of suicidal tendencies. Her first attempt was out a window in the very same room where they are all meeting. She left him for the same reasons the others did: infidelity. Marie-Belle (effervescently played by Francesca Choy-Kee), the thirtysomething kooky and idealistic most recent girlfriend of the departed (who was 100 when he passed away), has invited them all here. She appears to have psychic access to the deceased man and channels his thoughts as well as appears to remain, literally, in touch with him when she breaks into fits of laughter from the tickling matches he engages in with her from beyond the grave.
Death, rarely welcome, but always inevitable, can provide a microscope for the living to look at their lives in the present. Although at first they are cynical and even antagonistic toward one another, the women develop a rapport and join together in their concern for Janice. Whenever they lose sight of her, they immediately bond and frantically ask: “Where’s Janice?” And, unfortunately, at one moment when the other women are caught up in a reminiscent reverie about the past and the man who is now gone, their worry proves valid. There is nothing funny about suicide, but a topic can be made funny by the right ratio of drama to comedy. Under Barnet Kellman’s direction, the balance is perfect.
Neil Patel’s scenic design not only captures the airy and orderly nature of a Parisian apartment but is further complemented by the warm and intimate space of the Cherry Lane Theatre where the play is running. Paintings adorn the walls in Parisian salon style (and turn out to be the works of famous actors such as Rosie O’Donnell, Billy Dee Williams, and Joel Grey, among others). The one painting, however, that is given the most attention is Untitled Peonies, a work that Evelyn recognizes as her own creation from when she lived in the apartment in the ’60s. She can’t believe he still has it hanging on the wall.
Each of the women—Evelyn, Evvie, and Janice—left the man for the same reason. His unfaithfulness drove them away, but the initial bitterness and anger over his infidelity covers up the sadness and lament for the loss of a great love. When Evvie says, “He was a collector,” she means it as a bad thing. However, Horowitz suggests that collecting things, like lovers or paintings of former lovers, is a way of celebrating life.
Marie-Belle turns out to have an odd agenda. She extends the idea that they should all live together after the funeral. She claims she is rich, and although she appears to be an interminable airhead, has made a lot of money playing the stock market on advice from a friend. Between the apartment and the money, she feels they could have a good life together. Perhaps she is onto some kind of new age, enlightened concept of co-housing. Janice jumps at the chance, rather than out the window again. Evelyn, who is 88, and Evie, who is 68, warm to the idea. It’s attractive, not only because of their age, but because, truth be told, they are lonely, and living together may be a good antidote. They certainly know the apartment, and for all the bad memories, there are lots of good ones as well. It was their home once before. Why not again?
Israel Horovitz’s Out of the Mouths of Babes is playing at the Cherry Lane Theatre, 38 Commerce St. (near Sixth Avenue South). Evening performances are at 7 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday; matinees are at 3 p.m. Wednesday, Saturday, and Sunday. For tickets, call OvationTix at 866-811-4111, go online to www.cherrylanetheatre.org, or purchase them at the Cherry Lane box office.