There's Babe Ruth, Babe Magnets, Babes in Arms, Babes in the Woods.
And then there's Out of the Mouths of Babes. Sounds like some precocious three-year olds babbling pearls of wisdom way beyond their nursery years. In fact it's right out of the Bible (Old Testament - Psalms 8:2):
Out of the mouths of babes/You have ordained strength/Because of your enemies
Fast forward about 3,000 years to Israel Horovitz' play Out of the Mouths of Babes. In this striking Cherry Lane Theatre production (www.cherrylanetheatre.org), the Babes are adults. Out of their mouths comes wit..with claws. Picture four sassy, savvy, snarky babes -- all ex-wives and lovers of the same beloved Professor -- clumped together in one Paris apartment for his funeral.
In French, great women friends are called "amies." Bien sur, on the surface. But vraiment, deep down, it's more like En-Amies...n'est-ce pas?
Whatever happened to the solidarity of feminists Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan? Perhaps Horovitz was inspired by French novelist Simone de Beauvoir's take on women: "each woman sees in every other one an enemy. I have referred to that type of rivalry in young girls; it often continues for life."
Simone de Beauvoir
Photo Credit: feministezine.com
The Horovitz gals share spiritual gems (one must "take control of life's punctuation...") while provoking each other ("you hated Paris...you spoke French like an Eskimo").
It's The Supremes minus Supreme Higher Consciousness. Spice Girls with chips of chili, tinges of turmeric, and clusters of cayenne.
OSCAR TO ISRAEL...HAMMERSTEIN TO HOROVITZ
Oscar Hammerstein once exclaimed, "There's nothing like a dame." But that's just one. Four of them swarming and commiserating in one space? C'est impossible!
Horovitz ' evocative piece playfully confronts the conundrum of conniving broads: 88-year old Evelyn (Estelle Parsons), the "I've-seen-it-all octogenarian/don't care what I say now"; 68-year old Evvie/Snookie #2 (Judith Ivey), the selfish Bayonne rich bitch screenwriter, repeatedly insisting "I never married him" with fantasies of dropping the younger, starry-eyed ingénue Marie-Belle out the window;
Francesca ("Marie-Belle") Choy-Kee
Photo Credit: Carol Rosegg
58-year old Janice (Angelina Fiordellisi), the obsessive ("I need to write stuff down"), rigid, multi-suicidal, unloved twin sister, wondering if she should live a depressing, Waiting for Godot life; and 38-year old Marie-Belle (Francesca Choy-Kee), the baby of the group, the idealist dreamer who offers to "kumbaya" the group into an ooh-la-la hippie commune, sharing the apartment forever.
SISTERHOOD MATH - DOES IT ADD UP?
Nope. This babe club is much less yaya than nada sisterhood: two Evelyns (one Evvie); two Snookies (one dead, one alive); one Marie-Belle, all overstepping and undermining, with occasional twists of empathy. They seesaw between snapping and sympathizing, raging and reveling, regretting and revealing, confessing ("I should have shared him with the others") and critiquing, professing and provoking, admiring and admonishing ("You don't look 88." "You look 68 in a good way.") It's The Pointer Sisters stabbing with a dull point...Destiny's Child with cranky daughters.
Webster's 9th Collegiate Dictionary defines "sisterhood" as a community or society of sisters. In the 60's the hippies would hang, laugh, sob, flirt, sing and cry together. In theory, they'd bond with insights, intuition, inner soul and little girl-inner child. In practice, not an inner chance.
In pop culture, catfights usually come in twos. Think dueling divas Joan Crawford and Bette Davis; Sophia Loren and Jayne Mansfield; Christina Aguilera & Lady Gaga.
Enter Israel Horowitz...who's doubled the numbers.
Imagine the chaos. So many geometric combinations, variations and algebraic equations it makes the head spin.
LIBERTÉ EGALITÉ & JEALOUSÉ
Sure. We all have our fabulous pajama party/shoulder to cry on/I'd-do-anything-for-you BFF's. But then there are the mean girls..the ones that kiss you in the front, and stab you in the back. The catty Collette vs Chanel; Jennifer and Angelina; even Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan -- those twisted "sisters" knotted up in their rival ice skate laces.
Even in the classic James Stewart film, It's A Wonderful Life, the opening soda shop scene highlights two young whippersnapper darlings seated side by side, vying for the witty heartthrob seltzer server. The rivalry between the two pony-tailed beauties (Violet and Mary) swirling around on their ice cream parlor stools was as transparent as the sheen on their patent leather shoes. And in the legendary All About Eve, young ingénue Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter) and her "mentor," Broadway star Margo Channing (Bette Davis) run amuck, flaring way out of control.
Violet & Mary in It's A Wonderful Life
Photo Source: feministing.com
STITCHES OF BITCHES - ODD GODDESS WOMAN OUT
Let's face it. In Horovitz's new play, femme fury prevails, flowing freely from the mouths of his four lovelies, each pitted against assorted combinations of the other three. Janice frets about being the only one of the four ex-es who did not receive a formal invitation or a plane ticket. Why was she excluded? It's the old story of the click vs. the outsider. Today's babes call it FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out).
We all remember Sex & The City's four urban chicks banding together as a protective shield against the wiles of other women. As protagonist Carrie suggests, "Some women are put here just to make other women feel bad." In supportive, sisterly fashion, Samantha, the promiscuous, publicity savvy sex goddess, states, "We have to put that bitch in her place." We can practically hear the women across America applauding in wicked sisterly fashion.
BABES OF A FEATHER SPAR TOGETHER
In Horovitz's Babe-land, sisterhood seems a mirage. If there is a thin veil of female support, the fabric is sheer nylon.
The seesaw of sweet-snide-sugary-sarcastic remarks is like a quilting bee gone sour. Dueling divas Snooky and Evelyn jab at each other like a couple of pawing felines. Think Laila "She Bee Stinging" Ali and Jacqui "Sister Smoke" Frazier-Lyde.
Laila Ali and Jacqui Frazier-Lyde
Photo Credit: www.boxrec.com
Snooky: "I never got married."
Evalyn: "Nobody ever asked?"
Snooky: "That's kind of bitchy. Unless you meant it in a good way."
Evalyn: "No, I meant it in a bitchy way.
BE-BOP BABES: VICIOUS VAMPS or VILLAGE VANGUARD
A few beats into the play, it hit me. Horovitz' babe foursome plays like a modern jazz quartet (MJQ and Dave Brubeck come to mind), with riffs, improvs and silences... pauses for solos, dueling damsel counterpoint and syncopation, all amidst the snappy dialogue.
"Did you get involved with a lot of married men?" "15." "15's a big number." "Yeah, well one at a time."
Like great jazz musicians, the cool babes have chops. They listen hard, pouncing and volleying back and forth in rapid quips and rhythmic repartée. Their conversation is filled with flatted 5ths, diminished 7ths and augmented 4ths; their chatter patter is a Q & A of staccato/legato phrases and frenetic chord progressions.
Dave Brubeck Jazz Quartet
Photo Credit: www.allaboutjazz.com
I even identified the jazz ensemble parts: rock solid Evelyn on double bass, snarky Snooky on saxophone, melancholy Janice on vibes, and mediator Marie-Belle on drums and percussion. At one point I actually felt the Greenwich Village theater being mystically transported to the legendary Village Vanguard jazz mecca down the block. I half expected dream-girl quartet Ella, Sara, Billie and Lena to make a cameo, singing Lullaby of Babeland.
A quiet bass patter simmers throughout the play, pulsing the age old question, "Do you think people get over being cheated on?" In Horovitz' serio/comic response, Evelyn blurts out, "Even after 60 years, I still want to rip the hair out of your head."
BABES: HISTORICAL OR HYSTERICAL
Jealousy is everywhere: in the Bible, Ancient Greece, and the Stone Age. Check out Leah and Rachel (Genesis 29-31), two sisters whose envy brings misery. In Greek mythology goddesses are ruthless. Athena turns Medusa's hair into snakes; evil Hero snatches Echo's speech, leaving her rival to repeat only the last words she has heard.
And what about the Paleo babes? Yup, Jealous Janes may even date back to the caveman. After all, didn't Betty Rubble try to entice Fred Flintstone away from Wilma? Perhaps it is the cave woman's instinct to protect her domain (her husband) from neighboring cavewomen. Down through the ages, from cuneiform hieroglyphics, stone tablets, quill penned letters, and right up to modern texts, women have been Gossiping Gladyses and Backstabbing Bettys; It's no wonder we've got an epidemic of bullying.
As for the "Nice Girls" of 1960's tv -- Mary Tyler Moore, Donna Reed, June Cleaver -- they all seemed non-threatening. Yet even Lucy and Ethel, the classic 1950's female BFFs, neighbors and partners in zany crime, had some wrestling match moments, on and off set. Ethel craved a glamorous look, and vied (unsuccessfully) for a more romantic mate than Fred Mertz.
And in HBO's hit series The Sopranos, Edie ("Carmela") Falco, who sacrificed Italian family tradition when she encouraged husband Tony to find a therapist, was threatened by Doctor Jennifer Melfi. Marinara and fagioli maybe...but faggetabout mental health if your husband's shrink's a woman.
Maybe we modern women have become our own Worst Enemy - back packing, back tracking and backstabbing. We've switched from intuitive, nurturing types like Indira Gandhi, and Emma Goldman, to the cold, steely Carly Fiorina and Angela Merkel types.
EVE, EVVY, ENVY & EVALYN
As I see it, once upon a time the sisterhood was bound at the hip. Now it's disintegrating. Kinda like osteoporo-sis-terhood. Make no bones about it. When Adam created Eve, plucking her from his rib, he started a push-pull relationship. Those were the 'salad days,' when fig leaves were our only protection. The Garden of Good & Evil cultivated female ribbings; jealousies; anxieties; insecurities. Evvys & Evelyns sprouted up everywhere. Perhaps Eve had it easy. There were no other women around to envy.
Flash forward to today's rampant rivalry bullying. Yup. We have returned to the Salad Days, but now we're in a complex garden of mixed greens: arugula, endive, escarole, kale - and the Green Goddess of them all - Envy. The garden is filled with dande-lion-ess greens which need some serious weeding. They are infiltrating the purity of the soil, plants, roots, leaves and nutrients of the growth of the garden of well-being and Female Development.
Add a cup of seasoned tv/film/theater director Barnet Kellman (Murphy Brown, Ally McBeal). Mix in visionary Angelina Fiordellisi, founding Artistic Director, Cherry Lane Theatre; a pinch of bold, brassy Evvie (Judith Ivey); a pint of pithy, gravelly voiced Evelyn (Estelle Parsons); an ounce of the erudite, depressive Janice (Angelina Fiordellisi). Sprinkle with the fluffy New Age-y Marie-Belle (refreshing newcomer Francesca Choy-Kee)...and voilà - you've got yourself a Queen Babe Beehive soufflé.
Credit: Alan Denner
Move over, Julia Child. Under Ms. Fiordellisi's watch,
the Cherry Lane has prepped, baked and popped out some of the most fragrant, luscious, femme-friendly projects in the nation. These babe-a-licious cherry tarts are pungent, feisty and bursting with exuberance.
Photo Credit: Mia Berman
ETYMOLOGY OF BABE-OLOGY
The word BABE has many connotations: endearing (sweethearts calling each other "babe"); sexual ("she's a hot babe"); and romantic (Rodgers & Hart's 1911 lyrics, "Oh, ma babe, waltz with me, kid. Gee, you've got me off ma lid.") Sonny & Cher immortalized it in the '60's with I've Got You, Babe -- an ode to devotional love. Actually, it derives from a rather sweet, earthy source, the Russian BABushka (grandmother), from BABA, peasant woman and plum cake.
Feminists often consider the term condescending. Frankly, if someone calls me a BABE, I'm flattered. But if other babe wannabes are hovering, watch out. The so-called sisterhood fangs may start flaring.
MY CHILDHOOD RE-SIST-ERHOOD
Look. I'm no stranger in the Land of Babe vs. Babe. It all started at the age of 10, when my friends Jackie ("I'm too bossy") and Joanie ("she eats too slowly") penalized me for my fault: "you go away too much." (Raised by middle class Queens parents, I lucked out with the one perk my court stenographer father had: summers off. Every July, I was whisked off to Cape Cod for two months; during the school year, to special Manhattan birthday celebrations: Victor Borge at Carnegie Hall and Leonard Bernstein's Young People's Concerts at Lincoln Center). I figured it out. Jackie and Joanie got crazy jealous, angry that I was being disloyal to the pack. They took revenge by riding their bikes many blocks ahead of me, leaving me way behind in the sisterhood dust.
Another insecure sweetie sabotaged my long-awaited interview with Mr. Chief Editor (her boss) at a renowned publishing company. I'd encroached on "her turf." In the midst of my heart-to-heart about what inspired his journalist career, we were interrupted by rumblings. It was Ms. Daisy Daggers herself, digging into the huge bowl of jellybeans in his office. "I'm looking for the red ones," she coyishly blurted.
What could be more identifiable than a play about grown-up women thrown together at a somber time, all kibitzing, bullying and demeaning each other? The level of distrust amongst (and revenge towards) babes has reached the boiling point, creating a flurry of anti-bullying groups including my own: B.A.B.E.S. (B.onding A.gainst B.ullies E.quals S.isterhood™).
LEONARDO ISRAEL DA VINCI HOROVITZ
Israel Horovitz looms large as a Renaissance man - master playwright, philosopher, conductor, humorist, linguist, and priest.
1. Israel the philosopher -- kind of a Plato meets Woody. When suicidal Janice jumps out of the Paris apartment window, then reappears, she shocks the mortified Snooky and Evelyn, who thought she'd drowned. A soaked, deadpan Janice responds: "So did I -- I floated... I'm a floater," as flatly as if she'd labeled herself an atheist, or a vegetarian.
A modern day Maimonides, Horovitz continually asks the deep questions: Janice, in despair, wonders: "Am I... cursed to go on ...like a pathetic Beckett character...like he wrote me into Waiting for Godot on his darkest, most perverse off day?"
2. Then there's Israel the wordsmith. Unraveling the mystery of their hero's death, three babes conclude the fourth (Marie-Belle) was in bed with Romeo at the time he passed. A shocked Evelyn blurts, "He loved cunnilingus." Marie-Belle looks quizzical. Snooky chimes in, "It's an ancient language. " Evelyn sums up: "Yes he was cunni-lingual."
3. And Israel Horovitz the artist. He paints a scene of surrealist sisterhood detail. The colorful stage set (designed by Neil Patel) is a chic Paris salon (Gertrude S. and Alice B., where are you?) Even the walls of the apartment are decorated in hipster art gallery style. Who knew that Joel Grey, Rosie O'Donnell, Eve Plumb, Billy Dee Williams and Tina Louise moonlighted as painters?
4. Then there's Horovitz the humorist. Although he denies writing lots of comedy, Horovitz is hilarious (a "50th wedding anniversary shouldn't be gold - it should be "dumpster"). He blends the sinister with a sliver of irony. Describing the professor's resting place in the Père
Lachaise cemetery: "187 graves away from Oscar Wilde; 15 minutes up the hill to Jim Morrison." On death, Snooky declares, "When I die I don't want a funeral...I just want a couple of friends to get together and bring me back to life."
5. Finally, Horovitz the analyst (his father was a trucker who became a lawyer at 50) reminisced about seeing Raisin in the Sun with his parents. In a talkback with the audience, he explained wanting to go home with that family, not his own. And, how he developed a sense of travel, of place --one of his faves, no doubt, being Paris.
BARNET REFLECTIONS, RUMINATIONS & CULMINATIONS
Masterful Barnet Kellman directs the quartet of women with a thoughtful hand and invisible baton. A blend of Jerome Robbins and Benny Goodman, he's the ultimate conductor/choreographer/director/bandleader.
Kellman, who spearheaded the USC Comedy program in the School of Cinematic Arts (www.cinema.usc.edu/Comedy) was eager to describe the inception of the project. It seemed an existential, Mel Brooks-ian dilemma: an out-of-nowhere e-mail appeared in his inbox, inviting him to direct Estelle Parsons and Judith Ivey in New York City. "If I had said no," Kellman asked himself, truly, "Who Am I?"
IF POP MUSIC BE THE FOOD OF LOVE
Aside from the bitching, there's a whole lotta reminiscin' goin on. Sporadically, the Out of the Mouths Babes Quartet bond together through musical references, waxing nostalgic about which popstars of the day they listened to, all with that same guy. A piano sits on stage underneath a covered mirror, "reflecting" time... a silent reminder of the music they all shared, from Evelyn's 1940's hits (Ella, Nat King Cole, Tony Bennett) to Snookie's faves -- the Stones and Neil Young --to Janice's Chopin Études.
OPTING FOR OPTIMISM
If one wonders whether the wicked babe walls will ever come tumbling down, Horovitz' Out of the Mouths veers towards YES. It's a rocky road, but worth riding the babe roller coaster wave out.
Photo Credit: Alan Denner
In the end, underneath the veneer of arrogance and sarcasm are some real connect-the-diva-dots. Behind the curtain of criticism lies a deeper bond of grief. Israel the priest (or should I say rabbi) converts a lioness' den into a safe Parisian haven and 'confessional.'
One by one, each admits a melancholic, lingering affection for Mr. Mutual Lover. Success has not erased Snooky's longing...wallowing in sadness, she blathers, "I'm rich." The babes have travelled overseas just for a glimpse of him: Janice saw him gardening, and Snooky concedes, "I did worse; I used binoculars."
Horovitz the optimist ultimately does offer hope: Thinly disguised underneath the veil of babe jealousy is a layer of compassion, due to what they all share: (a) the same annoying-but-revered, egotistical hunk; and (b) their exquisite babe DNA.
Photo Credit: Da Ping Luo
Israel Horovitz' Out of the Mouths of Babes should be required viewing for all high school girls, where bullying has rocketed out of control. If only these outcast, demeaned, esteem-less girls could see that underneath the cattiness is the way cool. If only they'd realize that we're all in this together, from our lip-glossed babe mouths down to our babe-pedicured toes, then we'd play less of the bitter, and more of the sweet sounds of a jazz quartet. In fact it would become a babe symphony.