GLOUCESTER — “Out of the Mouths of Babes’’ does not fare well if subjected to the Bechdel test, not by a long shot. But it does largely pass the comedy test.
An addition to the cultural lexicon named for cartoonist Alison Bechdel of “Fun Home’’ fame, the Bechdel test asks whether a play, film, or other work of fiction has at least two women in it and, crucially, whether they talk to each other about something other than a man.
Written by Israel Horovitz and directed by him at Gloucester Stage Company, “Out of the Mouths of Babes’’ features four women who mainly talk to one another about the man they have in common. Make that had, since they have gathered in Paris for his funeral.
The newly deceased, a professor at the Sorbonne who remains unnamed in the play, lived to 100, and he seems to have spent a fair chunk of his time on Earth bedding and wedding any woman in his path. He was evidently catnip to the ladies, and “Out of the Mouths of Babes’’ seeks to examine the mysterious hold he had on them even after the relationships ended.
His exes constitute an inadvertent sorority who get to know, and tangle with, one another over the course of 24 hours in the late professor’s loft apartment in the 19th Arrondissement, overlooking a canal. (The airily spacious, painting-filled apartment was designed by Jenna McFarland Lord.) They eventually develop a kind of solidarity while learning something about themselves and about what place the Great Man really occupied in the long trajectory of their lives. How much were — are — they defined by their relationships with him?
They include an imperious ex-wife, Evelyn (Debra Wise), now 88; Evvie (Paula Plum), 68, who had an affair with the professor while he was married to Evelyn; Janice (Sarah Hickler), 58, a former wife who has a habit of hurling herself out windows in unsuccessful suicide attempts; and the unstoppably effervescent Marie-Belle (Obehi Janice), 38, who is French-African (the other three are American) and was with the professor in bed, apparently while they were doing what he liked best, when he expired.
We are asked to believe that Marie-Belle took up with the professor when she was 17 and he was 79. There’s no plausibility test for comedy, nor should there be, but you’ll be rolling your eyes, especially when Marie-Belle extols, and furnishes auditory evidence of, the prof’s sexual prowess. So, gentle reader, consider that your Ick Factor alert.
If you can get past that, this New England premiere of “Out of the Mouths of Babes’’ has a stealthy charm that wins you over after a halting and sluggish start. It may not be top-drawer Horovitz, but the playwright, now 78, is like a veteran pitcher who knows that if he doesn’t have his best fastball, he can rely on guile and a sneaky curve.
A cofounder of Gloucester Stage Company in 1979 who served as artistic director until 2006, Horovitz remains uncommonly versatile, able to punch you in the gut or make you laugh with equal facility. There’s a reason the man’s work is still being produced — in Gloucester, New York, and elsewhere — after decades of playwriting that have yielded more than 70 plays, including “The Indian Wants the Bronx’’ (which helped launch the careers of Al Pacino and John Cazale in the late ’60s), “The Widow’s Blind Date,’’ “North Shore Fish,’’ and “Line.’’
In “Out of the Mouths of Babes,’’ Horovitz the director has served Horovitz the playwright well by casting this particular quartet of actresses. In particular, it’s a treat to watch how zestily Obehi Janice, speaking in a thick French accent, seizes and runs with the comic possibilities presented by Marie-Belle. The character claims that the spirit of the deceased professor sometimes tickles her, and the actress is hilarious in the scenes when that ostensibly happens.
Hickler acquits herself well as the quavering, high-strung Janice, but the play relies for humor to a troubling degree on her attempts to leap out of a window. As for Plum, nobody does sardonic better, and no actress can squeeze more out of a moment that might, in less capable hands, not even register. In “Babes,’’ for instance, Plum makes you double over with laughter with the self-excoriating inflection she brings to just three words (“I used binoculars’’) or even two (“I’m rich!’’).
It is Wise’s nuanced portrayal of Evelyn that accounts for the play’s most poignant moments. When she starts to tell Marie-Belle the story behind a painting of peonies hanging on the wall, the octogenarian is drawn, almost against her will, into a memory of a time when she and the professor were, of all things, happy.
OUT OF THE MOUTHS OF BABES
Written and directed by Israel Horovitz. Presented by Gloucester Stage Company, through Sept. 2. Tickets: $32-$42, 978-281-4433, www.gloucesterstage.com