Reality Removed

The current Invisible Theatre and Arizona Onstage productions are both enjoyable despite serious flaws

It's right there in the second act, the one element that My Old Lady, which opened last week at Invisible Theatre, and Ruthless!, launched last week by Arizona Onstage Productions, have in common. And it's the one element that really keeps each from being a first-class show: a female character who does something so utterly unconvincing that you waste the last half-hour of the performance wondering what each playwright could possibly have been thinking.

Aside from this dubious link, the two shows are as different as can be. My Old Lady, by Israel Horovitz, is one of those plays that starts out as a very funny comedy but then turns dark and teary before concluding on a note sufficiently ambiguous that you can consider the ending either honestly happy or full of false hope, depending on your taste. Ruthless! is a loony showbiz send-up, a musical that answers the question: What if John Waters tried to stage a script whose pages were pulled randomly from All About Eve and The Bad Seed?

First, let's look at My Old Lady, which had the more secure opening of the two shows.

A broke, 55-year-old American named Mathias "Jim" Gold thinks his luck has finally changed: His distant father has died and left him an apartment in Paris. He spends his last dime on a ticket to Paris to take possession of the place, intending to sell it at a quick profit and finally get back on his feet after three bad marriages and failed attempts at careers in writing and investment. It turns out, though, that the apartment is still occupied by its former owner, a 94-year-old woman named Mathilde, who not only has lifetime residency rights under the French viager system, but whose living expenses--$4,000 a month--have been paid by Mathias' father for decades, and are now expected to be covered by Mathias.

Mathilde takes pity on Mathias and lets him rent a room in the apartment until he can get himself organized. This, for a number of reasons, infuriates her daughter, Chloé, a woman of Mathias' age. Mathilde watches with amusement as Mathias and Chloé spar, quite viciously at first.

OK, so you think you know where this is going: Mathias and Chloé will wind up falling for each other. And you're right. But Horovitz also has something less predictable up his sleeve. You can see some of it coming if you pay attention to early clues in the dialogue--Mathilde's charming reminiscence of free love in 1930s Paris, Mathias' thoughts turning to guns with seemingly no transition from a previous topic, and his remark that "The heart is my family's fatal flaw; it's the thing that kills us." My Old Lady is not as edgy as it might have been had Horovitz written it 30 years ago, but the play is unsparing in its honesty about the stench that trails people who live with buried family secrets.

Still, Chloé's sudden change of heart about Mathias doesn't ring true, and certain disquieting issues surrounding their attraction to each other are simply glossed over. Halfway through the second act, you become aware of the presence of Horovitz the playwright too obviously manipulating his characters to suit his themes, rather than disappearing and letting the characters give the impression of living their own lives. Add to this a couple of dead-end plot threads (including an ultimately pointless debate about French collaboration during World War II), and you get a play that's less satisfying than it should be, given Horovitz' proven skill.

Invisible Theatre does its best with the material, though. Unlike the playwright, director Gail Fitzhugh has the good sense to leave no obvious trace of herself on stage; she draws work from her trio of actors that is entirely unselfconscious; it's always focused yet relaxed.

Harold Dixon has a knack for making you believe he's playing himself no matter how un-Dixonian his characters may be. He has a typically easy, low-key way with Mathias, neatly ignoring the potential of some scenes to turn maudlin or, in the beginning, comically angst-ridden in an overplayed Woody Allen style. His wife, Maedell Dixon, is every inch the frosty Frenchwoman as Chloé. Even more than her clothes and her hair, it's the set of her mouth that makes her seem authentically French, and her whole perceptive characterization radiates from those few square inches above her chin. Jetti Ames is comparatively softer and more cuddly as Mathilde, but she also conveys a certain flintiness when Mathilde doesn't get her way. You could see all three of these characters as very real people, if Horovitz didn't get in the way toward the end.

In complete contrast, Ruthless! makes absolutely no attempt to connect with reality; its realm is show business, or, more specifically, movies and musicals about show business. It steals, from any available source, the campiest plot threads and dialog imaginable, and flings them across the stage like glittering ninja weapons.

Somewhere in suburbia, little 8-year-old Tina Denmark is a star about to be born. Despite the concerns of her ditzy mother, Judy, she is taken under the wing of a mysterious talent agent named Sylvia St. Croix. But just when Tina is about to get her big break in the elementary-school play, another kid is cast in the lead role. Solution? Chase the brat onto a catwalk and hang her with her own jump rope. It turns out, though, that Judy has some latent talent of her own, and somehow by the second act, she's the one who's the Broadway star, surrounded by the usual assortment of vipers.

This is a show both cynical and silly, featuring a string of intentionally derivative songs by Marvin Laird that work splendidly in their context, thanks in large part to Joal Paley's nasty lyrics.

The first act of Ruthless! is hilarious in its uncompromising lunacy, but the second act spins out of control, especially when Judy's over-the-top nutcase of an assistant, Eve, is on stage. Writer Paley uses Eve as a conduit for every zany reference he couldn't work in more legitimately, and with Eve allowed to set the tone, we lose faith in the other, already cartoonish but engaging characters.

I mistakenly arranged to see Ruthless! on what turned out to be a preview night, and although the cast was in top form, some technical glitches threw the show off. Most distressingly, a sound problem halfway through the first act left two actors dying onstage at a critical moment, and the performances and overall pacing never quite regained their momentum.

I imagine that now that the tech troubles have presumably been overcome, this production must be more fun from start to finish. First of all, it has a splendid Tina in sixth-grader Jalyn Wheatley; she's a perfect balance of adorable cuteness and cunning viciousness. (Producer-director Kevin Johnson is showing an excellent knack for finding kids who can act and sing about as well as any adult in town.) Stephanie Sikes' Judy is part robotic Stepford wife, part 5-year-old playing grownup. One might wish Johnson had directed her to be more subtle in the early scenes, but Sikes does what's asked of her splendidly. David Olsen plays the agent, Sylvia, with such deadly comic finesse that you forget Sylvia is a man in drag.

The other cast members range from OK to quite fine, which is a good average, but not up to the sustained high standards of this company's two earlier productions, Falsettoland and Assassins. Still, I suspect I'd find it all more fully captivating if I saw it again this week, and the lights and sound worked on cue.

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