By Alec Clayton
Local theater company Harlequin Productions has a love affair going with playwright Israel Horovitz. It began with a surprise email the playwright sent to Harlequin co-founder Scot Whitney early in 2009. For Whitney it goes back much further than that, to sometime in the late 1980s.
Whitney and his wife, Linda, had recently formed their theater company. Before that he had spent 16 years as a filmmaker, but he said he became cynical about film as a medium and found live theater more satisfying. Their company was new. He decided to go to an evening on one-acts plays presented at The Evergreen State College. Two of the plays were by Horovitz, “Rats” and “Line,” both from his first year working in New York. Whitney says he doesn’t remember anything about the other plays, but those two “Were just burned in my brain.”
He didn’t know anything about Horovitz. “I didn’t even know if he was still alive.”
Flash forward to the spring of 2008. Harlequin was in rehearsal for Conor McPherson’s “Shining City.” Whitney checked his email. There was a message from Horovitz. He assumed it was a form letter maybe promoting his latest play and probably sent to theaters all over the country. He clicked on it and was surprised to discover it was a very personal, informal and chatty note saying, “Hi Scot. …I’m visiting in Olympia. Give me a call.”
Imagine a young Bob Dylan, maybe in his first week in New York, getting a call from Woody Guthrie saying, “Hi Bob. This is Woody Guthrie. Give me a call” or some young beginning actor getting a similar call from Steven Spielberg. As it turned out, Horovitz was visiting his daughter who lives in Olympia. He asked if he could come by and watch a rehearsal. “He was a charming guy,” Whitney says. “He watched the rehearsal and hung around a while and talked with the cast.” Then he asked Whitney if he would be interested in directing his new play before it opened in New York.
He sent a copy of the play by email, and the next morning and Whitneys read it and loved it, and Scot called Horovitz and said, “Let’s do it.” They were four days away from announcing their new season and had to scrap one of the planned plays in order to do Horovitz’s new play. His play was “Sins of the Mother.” It was a world premiere. Horovitz came back to Olympia and spent a week working with the cast and crew. Whitney said, “He tore it apart.” Whitney said he apologized for taking over but he told him he could do anything he wanted with it. After all, it was his play.
“Sins of the Mother” was a hit. The next year Harlequin produced “Six Hotels” and the next year they did “Unexpected Tenderness.” For both shows Horovitz came to Olympia to work with the cast. Now, for the fourth consecutive year, Harlequin is doing an Israel Horovitzplay. This one is “My Old Lady,” a comedy set in Paris, France.
“I think people are going to be really surprised by this play,” Whitney says. “It’s a wonderfully sweet play. It’s his Valentine to Paris.”
“My Old Lady” is the story of a down-on-his-luck would-be writer, played by Jason Haws, who inherits an extremely expensive apartment in Paris. He goes to Paris with the intent of selling the apartment only to find it is being occupied by a 92-year-old woman who has rights to the apartment because of some arcane French law, and she has no intention of giving it up. Fireworks ensue between the two, which are further complicated when the woman’s daughter enters the picture.
“My Old Lady” runs through June 2 at Harlequin Productions’ State Theatre, 202 4th Ave. East, Olympia, 360-786-0151.