On the surface Israel Horovitz’s clever, humorous play Out of the Mouths of Babes, enjoying its world premiere at the Cherry Lane Theatre, is a send up of male-female relationships, jealousy, philandering, subterranean emotional wounds, and everlasting love. On a more profound level in between the rollicking laughter, surprising plot twists, and intricate, humanly drawn characterizations, Horovitz includes pithy truisms about life and love. The play infuses an accumulated wisdom of the ages about women’s need for men and men’s even greater attraction and compulsion for women. In the case of the lead character (who never appears and is the unnamed focal point of the action), his consumption of women relied on a never ending, ever-younger supply of “babes” which carried him to the ripe young age of 100-years-old, at which point his fleshly mortality proved too much for him.
Incisively paced and directed with specificity by Barnet Kellman, Out of the Mouths of Babes sports an intriguing scenario. It is full of fireworks, mayhem, and fellowship that can happen, if a man’s past loves (spouses, partners), accidentally meet up at his apartment and stay over to attend his funeral the following day. Implausible? Perhaps. Wickedly funny? Absolutely!
The natural flow of events are undammed when Evelyn (the prickly, deliciously viperine and wry Estelle Parsons in a hysterical spot on depiction), enters an artfully appointed Paris apartment followed a few moments later by Evvie (Judith Ivey is her humorous foil in a bullseye portrayal). Evvie is a softer, younger, ironic version of Evelyn with tinges of the free-wheeling, California-dreamin’ hippie. Both women are initially cordial at this mysterious meet-up until the 88-year-old Evelyn upon questioning discovers that Evvie is a ghost from the past which she thought she had exorcised. Evvie’s nickname is Snookie and she is the chippy youngster (now in her 60s), who was the villainous “other woman” who overthrew Evelyn and upended her marriage to the deceased.
Evelyn spews an acid-rich tongue-lashing about the affair; the sparks fly, the emotions burn. We cheer on both women with laughter because of this surprising confrontation which evidences a number of ironies. First, both women after all these years are blessedly alive. The past which one would think has long been redeemed apparently is not. No one is more shocked at this than Evelyn and Evvie. If they thought they had dismissed the other in a figurative burial that allowed them to move on with their lives, they are mistaken. Now, as they look at each other in their older flesh, each bleeds with regrets and frustration bubbles up into anger. The emotional hazard of recalled incidents about “their man” is stirred up through sardonic jibes and parries about what they inferred or knew about each other through “him!”
This is wicked fun. We understand the terror of rivalries between the married older wife and the younger, dim, unmarried husband-stealer. Horovitz has gathered these cultural stereotypes and wrapped them in his cleverly spun themes. He suggests that some male-female relationships fall into these patterns. The patterns themselves reinforce rather obnoxious cultural norms which in turn influence human behavior. For example, women caught in a philanderer’s net may assume they can best their female rivals, but when the younger cutie comes along, despite her “looks,”they are destroyed by her aura of youth. Some unfaithful husbands sample a variety of women and lie to their wives. They choose clueless younger women to feed their Viagra libido, ego or midlife crisis angst.
What we divine about the relationships of Horovitz’s adulterer and his ‘babes” is how such men and women “play their own dramatic parts” and adhere to their roles which create their own ego doom: the “age-defying, lady-killer”; the younger, sexy “other woman,” the “wronged,” self-righteous wife. In Out of the Mouths of Babes (the title is a double entendre that holds humorous and ironic symbolism), the unnamed lover seeks out younger and younger women from one generation to the next: first it’s a woman near his age, then 12 years younger, then a daughter’s age, then a granddaughter’s, then the age of a great, great, granddaughter. And these are the ones revealed. This rake most probably bedded many more.
The only comfort that soothes Evelyn and Snookie and salves their wounds is the discussion of other women who are not “survivors” like they are. These couldn’t bear his unfaithfulness and killed themselves. An earlier Snookie committed suicide. Janice, who was younger than Evvie/Snookie, pitched herself out the window.
The women reminisce and trade barbs. Like chickens, they pick at the shattered remnants of each other’s former relationship with “him.” Then Janice enters (a wonderful performance by Angelina Fiordellisi, who beautifully fields the punch lines by the others). It is the depressive, fails-at-everything-Janice, who pitched herself out the window. But she lived: another revelation for Evelyn and Evvie. Janice read “his” obituary and the date of the funeral in the paper. She didn’t receive an invitation and plane tickets from the States as did Evelyn and Evvie about which she feels slighted and depressed.
As the three women reveal their own histories, a picture emerges; the Casanova selected a particular type who fell for him; he repeated nicknames and behaviors, was charming and urbane and completely enthralled them. They discuss when and how their relationships began and ended. Despite the humorous quips and snarky banter adroitly added by each of the characters, their emotional upset is palpable. During the course of the play, we and they come to the realization that this swooning lover captured their hearts forever and they may never get over him. The jokes run throughout and Janice, who rather enjoys victimizing herself (it’s a pattern she learned from her upbringing), and who is still in a deep depression about her failed life is not to be trusted around open windows.
The final coup de grâce is in the form of Marie-Belle (Francesca Choy-Kee is delightful), the youngest and most positive and uplifting of his lovers. Why? She has no regrets: he didn’t leave her for another “babe.” Death checked him out. However, the man is a dynamo! He is still sexually active and vibrantly loving in Marie-Belle’s fertile imagination. She relates to him in the spirit world: death holds no bounds. Marie-Belle explains the mystery of why they are all together. She still feels fulfilled in her love for him (he tickles her and Marie-Belle laughs at his touch; Choy-Kee makes it happen). Together, they attend the funeral which is part expiation, part celebration, part mourning and part closure.
It is at some point after the funeral back at the apartment, when reviewing her desperately failed life, Janice attempts to fly out the window and end it all. The madcap quality of her prior attempts to leap to her death, authentically acted by Fiordellisi and the others who restrain her, provides a great buildup to this moment. She leaps toward the window when no one is looking and succeeds in going over the side with brilliant, LOL results. Just priceless.
Marie-Belle offers friendship to all and use of the apartment. She even shares her secrets about sexually coupling in the spirit realm with the “man they love, still love, maybe love,” depending upon whether they can let go of the past. She suggests the other women join her in achieving a spiritual-sexual relationship with “he” who has apparently discovered the fountain of youth, only not on this plane. The other women are skeptical until “he” gives them “a sign” which they and we can believe in. Horovitz, Kellman and the cast have set this up seamlessly with great good will and and a fine, satisfying finish.
This production smartly conceived by Kellmen with assistance from show designers Neil Patel, Joseph G. Aulisi, Paul Miller, Leon Rothenberg, Frank Bilotta, others and the superb cast, have created a memorable, whimsical, fun ride. If you prefer to go deeper, you will appreciate the mash-up of male-female psyches, regretful love, poignant miseries of upbringing, and heartfelt moments that emerge when one begins to release pain and recover from emotional fractures. Through the well crafted, humorous, real characterizations, we understand that healing is possible if we accept help even from unlikely sources, and if we make sure not to take ourselves too seriously. By the end all of the characters are at various stages of recovery from the alluring, rather infantile philanderer and can look in the mirror and smile.
This must-see production runs at the Cherry Lane Theatre until July 31st. Check out the artwork; it, too, is fun and surprising.