The Cost of Living

Renowned playwright Israel Horovitz is coming to discuss one of his new plays, being produced by Invisible Theatre

If Israel Horovitz ever has a deeply rotten day, at least at the end of it, he can tuck himself into bed, sigh and say, "Al Pacino owes his career to me."

And if that's not quite enough, he can roll over and whisper to his wife, "I'm the most-produced living American playwright in France." Then he can sleep more easily, at least until Jerry Lewis starts writing plays.

Not that Horovitz seems smug enough to make a mantra of having launched Pacino's career, along with those of Richard Dreyfuss, and maybe even Marsha Mason and Jill Clayburgh. But the fact is that over a period of two years in the late 1960s, Horovitz wrote a string of much-talked-about plays like The Indian Wants the Bronx, Line and It's Called the Sugar Plum that introduced a string of much-talked-about young actors.

Horovitz is still at it, although as he's gotten older, so have his protagonists. In the recent My Old Lady--perhaps a pre-emptive strike on Jerry Lewis, who would probably write something called Hey, Lady--Horovitz's comic hero is a man in his 50s, a down-on-his-luck American who inherits an apartment in Paris. There's just one problem: It's occupied by a 94-year-old widow who has lifetime habitation rights under an arcane French law.

My Old Lady will begin a run next week at the Invisible Theatre, with Jetti Ames as the vieille femme of the title, Maedell Dixon as her daughter, and Harold Dixon as the American. Horovitz will drop by for a few personal appearances, too. Between visits with a first cousin who owns Kent's Tools, he'll participate in post-show discussions on the afternoon of Wednesday, Jan. 26 (an added matinee) and the evenings of Thursday and Friday, Jan. 27-28.

"Playwrights tend to write things that they know best, and it's not surprising that older writers write older characters," Horovitz said last week from his home in New York. But don't expect My Old Lady to be a literal account of Horovitz's adventures in the housing market in the City of Lights.

"I used to rent apartments in France, and I bumped into that odd system and thought it was extraordinary," he said. His mother was 90 when he wrote the script--she's now 94--a widow living in the house Horovitz grew up in, and he could easily translate her into a French character in a similar situation.

"You can imagine some old French lady in that circumstance needing money," he said, "and so she sells her apartment, and in the French system, she gets this advance payment and so much money a month that's enough to live on, and the buyer gets a reduced rate in the cost of the apartment, but he has to gamble that the lady's not going to live a long time, so he can eventually move in."

During this play's original production, Horovitz learned of the 1997 death at age 122 of Jeanne Calment, who until then was the world's oldest known living person. "The extraordinary thing in her obituary was that when she was 60, she sold her apartment to a lawyer, and the guy paid on the damn thing for 30 or 40 years, but she outlived him," Horovitz recounted.

Horovitz himself has spent a great deal of time over the past 30 to 40 years in France. In the summer of 1968, after it had opened in New York, The Indian Wants the Bronx was presented as a hot new American offering at the Spoleto Festival in Italy. While he was attending that production, Horovitz met a Swiss actress who introduced him to famed playwright Samuel Beckett, an Irish expat living in France. "We were supposed to meet for 30 minutes with lots of rules," Horovitz recalled, "but I ended up sitting with him for four hours. At the end I said, 'Do you think we can be friends?' He said, 'We already are.'

"There are fathers of chance and fathers of choice, and he was my father of choice."

Horovitz visited Beckett in France as often as he could. Meanwhile, a French translator Horovitz met through that same Swiss actress became interested in his work, and prepared French versions of Indian, Sugar Plum and Morning, all three of which were offered in Paris on a long bill in the fall of 1968.

"I'd just come from seeing this unknown actor named Al Pacino in Indian Wants the Bronx in New York, so he was on my mind when I was seeing this production in Paris," Horovitz said. "Morning featured an unknown young French actor named Gérard Depardieu. I sat there and said, 'Oh, my God, there are two of them.'"

The plays were enormously successful. A translation of his Line ran for 11 years. Horovitz estimates that at least 35 of his 50-some plays have been translated and performed in France; he's directed premieres of nine of them in French, in France.

Meanwhile, for the past 25 years, he's also served as the unsalaried co-founder, artistic director and producer at Gloucester Stage in Massachusetts. It's a summer series in which Horovitz can try out his new work, revive some of his older plays and mount productions of new and old plays by other writers, mainly Americans.

"It's a tremendous albatross hanging around my neck," Horovitz groused without complete conviction. "It's lovely when it is lovely, and it's a way of giving back to a place that I love. But when I started the damn thing, I had no idea what I was getting into. On the other hand, there's no question that it keeps me thinking about my responsibility to an audience. And it absolutely reaffirms my notion that what interests the public isn't necessarily in the public interest. Very often, you have to give people what they think they don't want because you can see that it's what's needed."

Since Sept. 11, for example, Horovitz has ignored the national trend of presenting feel-good comedies to a traumatized populace, instead delivering hard-hitting dramas. The result has actually been financially successful, a situation Horovitz doesn't always enjoy at Gloucester.

"I've tried to do stuff that's commercial when we're next to broke," he said, "and it always blows up in my face."

Nearly 40 years ago, though, Horovitz never seemed to anticipate anything but success for his plays, and it wasn't a question of egotism.

"It never occurred to us on opening night of The Indian Wants the Bronx that it wouldn't succeed," he said. "We knew it was good, and we'd put more work into it than anyone could imagine. There's a commonality of tremendous focus among people who have early success like that. My son Adam is like that. He's a member of the Beastie Boys, and he already had a record out when he was 14, with a group called The Young and the Useless. It sold 14,000 copies. He was 16 when he joined the Beastie Boys. It was like 110 percent focus; nothing was going to distract them. I remember clearly having that in my life when I was young. Then, as you get older, you do your damnedest to lose that so you can have a broader life and make things easier for the people around you. But when I'm working on a new play, it's still with a crazy focus, so intense."

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