Pardon Mon French, Mais Où Est Le Play?

Israel Horovitz is an extremely prolific playwright, and who am I to say he shouldn’t be? And with that charming opening, you will sense that Mr. Horovitz’s latest play, My Old Lady , at the Promenade, wasn’t quite for me. It might be for you . But that depends if you like plays about French real-estate law.

On the other hand, Mr. Horovitz’s point is that there’s more to French real estate than you ever dreamt about, and My Old Lady also turns out to be one of the more peculiar arguments I’ve heard lately on behalf of incest. It seems to start off as a boulevard comedy, until it decides where it wants to go-which could be anywhere at any time , as we’ll see.

The piece takes place in Paris, where a 50-year-old visiting American named Mathias Gold (Peter Friedman) has arrived from New York speaking bad French with a horrible American accent, as Americans always do. Quel shlub! Hence Mathias’ less-than-winning entrance, when he apologizes profusely for knockait, uh, frappait, uh, fais des knock-knock beaucoup sur la door de Madame Mathilde Giffard, a Frenchwoman qui parle perfect English with a slight Franco-Welsh accent.

But that’s only because Mathilde is played by the splendid Welsh-born actress Sian Phillips, who’s doing all she can do in the role of a wily 94-year-old widow who, when the right flirtatious moment presents itself, pretends to be 92 pour shockez les horses. We learn that she was an English schoolteacher for 76 years who taught that lively scamp of a lad, the future president, François Mitterrand. She was also unhappily married to a Frenchman with a wandering eye, which is something Frenchmen have, who died some time ago and had a passion for safari hunting in Africa-hence the boar heads with guns on the bedroom wall. Mathilde is the owner of the grand apartment overlooking the Luxembourg Gardens that the hapless Mathias thinks he’s inherited from his late, hated father, a wealthy Francophile. This is where the fascinating French real-estate law kicks in.

The apartment is a viager , we learn. “This apartment is a viager ,” Mathilde explains to the puzzled Mathias in no uncertain terms.

“Meaning what, exactly, in English?” he asks.

Thank goodness Mathilde replies in English, that’s all I can say. “It’s a system for buying and selling apartments,” she explains doggedly. “When your father bought this place, he bought it well below the market price.”

“I’m sure he did,” Mathias adds with a little edge. “My father was really good at that.”

“Yes, I suppose he was,” Mathilde answers vaguely, and continues: “All appartements viagers are sold cheaply. The buyer gets the apartment cheaply, for what we call a small ‘bouquet,’ but he or she must agree to pay ‘les charges’-the fees for the apartment-until the owner, well, dies.”

“I don’t follow,” says Mathias, which is typical. He doesn’t understand “laysharges” that go to the “co-propriataire,” who’s the adorable old battle-ax Mathilde. The “laysharges” are in return for the reduced price of the apartment, which he can take possession of when she croaks. In other French words, Mathias is screwed.

But at 94, the odds look promising. Except it’s obvious Mathilde’s a Methuselah. Viager is good for you. But if you ask me, Mathias is the one who looks sick. He’s an unpublished novelist and poet who, mark my words, will write something meaningful one day about “laysharges,” or my name isn’t François Mitterrand. Mathias has no money or place to stay, but Mathilde lets him rent a room in exchange for his gold watch. The thought occurred to me that sweet Mathilde might be a secret Nazi. But it proved to be a false trail. François Mitterrand was the Nazi. Mais qui est Mathias? Who’s Mathias? Mon Dieu ! The name of Mathias, you’ve surely noted, is mysteriously similar to Mathilde ….

Mathias-who we now suspect might be the illegitimate son of Mathilde and his despised Francophile father-is a three-times divorced loser as well as a failed poet. The self-hating Mathias is that most tricky of dramatic inventions, a bore onstage. He describes himself as a bore, and he’s right. He’s a whining blob, a pathetic plonker who comes out with stuff like, “I’ve never had children. I don’t think it would be right to bring kids into this particular world … not with me as their father. Enough’s enough. A joke’s a joke. A loser’s a loser.”

He’s moaning Eeyore from Winnie the Pooh , except that we’ve always adored Eeyore. “What are birthdays?” Eeyore once asked, “here today, and gone tomorrow.” Humorless Mathias rues the day he was ever born. His wives left him, his remote father screwed him, his mother killed herself. I’m not too anxious to spend much time with him, either. But that wise old philosophique French bird, Mathilde, doesn’t see it that way. “This is France,” she explains helpfully. “We French are known for joie de vivre … our joy of life. You Americans seem to have more a joie de se plaindre … your joy of complaint. So when you’re out walking, act French. You’ll feel happier. Just don’t speak French, O.K.?”

Not to se plaindre , but Mr. Horovitz’s cultural diversions do not sparkle. That Catholic Mathilde was anti-Nazi during the Occupation is admirable, of course, if a little pandering. There were many times when she wished she were a Jew, apparently. “Not that I admire the Jewish rules any more than I admire the Catholic rules,” she adds with a mischievous twinkle in her eye, “I adore eating my coquillages and saucisson -shellfish and sausage, both of which are forbidden to Jews. I would have been a sinning Jew …. “

Is there anything worse than cute nonagenarians? It’s strange: The only ones I’ve ever met have been onstage. But then, a scratchy recording of Django Reinhardt’s “In the Still Of the Night” is enough to tempt Mathilde nostalgically back into les temps perdu and her-‘ow you say?- fling with Django. Naughty-naughty! “I was young and the world was different then,” she explains dreamily to the wide-eyed Mathias. “We were between wars. Young people in Paris were carefree. We loved to be in love …. “

Ah, yes. She remembers it well: Henry Miller, Joyce, Hemingway. “Everyone knew everyone then.” Actually, she doesn’t seem to remember them well at all. It’s just name-dropping in the awful cause of flattering insecure audiences into believing they’re in superior company, along with bits of French and chit-chat about “culture” and “poignant” family sagas infused with “mystery.” Meanwhile, back at the viager ….

Mathilde has a middle-aged daughter, the unhappy, unmarried school-mistress Chloe (played by the always fine Jan Maxwell, who’s achieving miracles here). Chloe is freaked out in some unfathomable way when she meets Mathias in her father’s bathrobe. ” Il port la robe de Papa! ” she cries indignantly to mum. It’s but a detail. The real point is, he has le même visage -the same haunting look as the other papa, the Francophile who might be …. In the interests of not giving anything away, kindly read no further unless you’re unable to resist temptation like, well, like Proust’s madeleine.

Zut alors ! Still ici, eh? We shall not detain you long. At the close of Act I, Mathias idly asks Mathilde whether she knew his father well. Did she ever! They were lovers for 66 years, no less. What a picture. But there we are. La vérité is out at last, although we knew it all along. “I loved your father more than I’ve loved any other human being in my entire lifetime …. You were named for me. I am Mathilde and you are Mathias.” (And … curtain !).

Act II continues with miserable Mathias and what he calls his rampant “loser virus.” He has now taken heavily to the bottle and carries a symbolic boar’s head around with him. Chloe can’t stand Mathias, and we think at least someone knows what’s what around here. Mathilde the Wise ruminates about war and forgetting. “You are America. You are so young, so gullible, so naïve,” she says to Mathias, who’s middle-aged, bitter and drunk. “America believes that anything is possible, while Europe knows that nothing is possible, because nothing changes.” And so on. “Do you realize that I’m deeply attracted to your daughter?” Mathias suddenly confesses to her. Oops. Does he know ? Why is Mathilde pleased? Is she un sicko?

Then Mathias melts Chloe’s apparently hard and discriminating heart by telling her how his chronically depressed mother shot herself when she put a gun in her mouth. “She died in my arms,” he sobs to her. As if that weren’t enough, he was a schoolboy at the time. “I bled for her. She bled for me,” he cries. We are meant to feel sorry for him. And of all people, Chloe does. Which makes us very disappointed in Chloe indeed. She comforts him surprisingly in her arms and eventually they go off for a fuck. And who is to blame for all this? Adorable 94-year-old Mathilde, that’s who.

And that’s why the two lonelyhearts, Mathias and Chloe, are both miserable souls. But Mathilde isn’t! To cut a long tragedy short, by now the intricacies of French real-estate law and viager are but a memory. Mathilde confesses emotionally to Chloe that Mathias is Chloe’s brother. “We have no reason to live, no courage to die,” Chloe now cries. Whereupon a loud gunshot is heard offstage.

We naturally assume Mathias has shot himself, and not a moment too soon. But the gunshot turns out to be Israel Horovitz’s little Ibsenesque joke. Mathias strolls onstage explaining how he shot a boar’s head hanging on the wall. Incidentally, Mathilde might have died at one point, but didn’t. The play did. The incest issue turns out sort of hunky-dory with everyone. This is France, after all. And all ends quite happily ever after, as sunshine streams through the windows. Directed by David Esbjornson. Tant pis .

Pardon Mon French, Mais Où Est Le Play?