At rise in My Old Lady, now showing at Harlequin Productions, actor Jason Haws fidgets before one of three ornate doors on the set. His character, an American named Matthias, doesn't know he's been to this Paris address several times. He remembers nothing about Mathilde and Chloe Giffard, the mother and daughter who live there, despite having met at least one of them. All he knows is his late father willed the apartment to him, and he's come to collect with nary a euro in his pocket. Unfortunately, Madame Giffard sold the apartment under the French viager system, which allows her to live in the apartment till she dies. She's more than 90 years old, but she's already outlived the sale by decades and doesn't seem anxious to meet her maker. Mathias is placed in the awkward position of waiting for a sharp-witted old lady to shuffle off her mortal coil. Adding to his discomfort is the murderous glares he receives from Chloe.
I work hard to separate whatever mood I'm in from my appraisal of a show. This time, however, I feel duty-bound to preface my review by saying I was emotionally drained when I saw My Old Lady. The day before was brutal. Ordinarily, when an audience loves a show more than I did, I'm confident enough to disregard mass opinion, but this is one of those rare times when the majority may be right. Friday's audience gave the show a unified standing ovation. You might consider My Old Lady an embarrassment of riches. (The doors alone, by scenic designer Linda Whitney and tech director Mark Bujeaud, are worth the price of admission.) Personally, I remain unconvinced, even after two days of thinking and three nights of sleep.
Haws is a fine actor who does predictably solid work here. His breakdown in Act II is restrained and affecting, and his "drunk acting" is a lesson in restraint and precision. Even so, it's hard to buy him and Laura Hanson, who plays Chloe, as 55-year-olds. It's equally tough to accept Karen Nelson as the non-agenarian Mathilde, especially from seats nearest the stage, and it doesn't help that Nelson's accent sounds more Germanic or Scandinavian than French. Otherwise, all three performances are heartfelt and polished.
I had issues with Israel Horovitz's script, the most significant being it's just shy of three hours long including intermission but its story needs less than two. Whitney makes the unusual choice of meandering through dramatic scene changes; whatever this adds to mood it subtracts from narrative tension. It's a stylistic gamble that, in my view, doesn't pay off, because the show as a whole lacks a feeling of urgency. My Old Lady is overstuffed with intelligent dialogue and emotional heft, but it's so long and slow we have plenty of time to anticipate its surprise turns. The unusually chatty audience members behind me were hours ahead of the plot.
I'm on the fence about this one. There's much to recommend, and director Scot Whitney has obvious experience with, and passion for, the slow burn of Horovitz's flavor of dramedy. I just think My Old Lady would've played better in two hours than by moseying for three.
[Harlequin Productions, My Old Lady, $20-$31, 8 p.m. Thurs. - Sat., 2 p.m. Sun. through June 2, 202 4th Ave. E., Olympia, 360.786.0151]