Two years a domestic slave: One woman’s story


Kanthi Salgadu lay shivering on the cold, hard floor of a West Los Angeles manse, locked in the room where she was made to sleep. She had no bed, just the meager comfort of two blankets that barely kept her warm. She was frightened in the dark, and her mind leapt like a hungry cat toward the sound of other voices; she could hear them elsewhere in the house — the clinking of glasses, the thunderous laughter, the sound of merriment bouncing off the walls. She knew others were eating the food she had made, sitting at the table she had set, and that after they left, she’d clean up their mess. 

But the guests who were now feasting on her food would never so much as glimpse her. And if anyone cared to compliment the chef, the woman of the house would answer, “Thank you.” 

Because Salgadu was invisible, a bronze-skinned ghost imprisoned in a private dungeon. She was there to work, to care, but never to be cared for. And so she lay there on the floor weeping and waiting for the sound of the key in the lock, for the hand washing of dishes, for the million further tasks, for the children to wake, for the daylight she dreaded, for her day of redemption. 

A Buddhist since childhood, Salgadu prayed. 

“I said, ‘God, why do I deserve this?’ ” Salgadu recalled of the four years a family of Singaporean traffickers held her captive as a nanny and housekeeper, first in Singapore and then in Los Angeles. “I didn’t do anything bad,” she continued, almost as a confession. But she was still punished. Even now, 14 years after she was rescued from slavery, Salgadu’s voice still quavers with doubt — the residual curse of surviving oppression.  

And yet, like the Israelites who fled Egypt, her trauma eventually became a gateway to a better life. 

“I feel like God gave me so much opportunity,” Salgadu told me a few weeks ago when we met at the Jewish Journal offices. Our meeting was arranged by CAST, the Coalition to Abolish Slavery & Trafficking, a local nonprofit that assists former slaves with their re-entry into civilian life. Since its founding in 1998, CAST has provided legal and social services to nearly 800 survivors of trafficking and organized political advocacy opportunities to push for policy reform. According to CAST, an estimated 12.3 million people are currently enslaved globally, most of them women and children.

The location of CAST’s office is secret. Before its staff would agree to send Salgadu for an interview, they insisted she come with an escort. Salgadu arrived wearing confident pink, though the boldness of the color belied her gentle manner. As she spoke, her wavy black hair cascaded past her shoulders in luminous ribbons; her eyes flashed with pain, tears and triumph as she told her story. 

Salgadu grew up in the city of Kurunegala, a capital of the Northwestern province of Sri Lanka. At 17, she was a bright and bookish high-school student, the prized child of her family, with plans to attend college. “My dad would always say, if you have a house or money, people can take [that] away from you. But if you have a good education, nobody can take [that] away from you,” she said. 

But not everyone in her family had the opportunity to become educated. Her older sister, Sriyani, barely made it to high school; at 15, she became pregnant and got married. Their mother never made it past fifth grade. Salgadu’s mother was also very ill and had been in and out of hospitals throughout her childhood. Responsibility fell to their father, a locally respected builder who made enough money to manage the family’s living expenses and afford medical care.

“He worked tirelessly,” Salgadu said in clear but broken English, “almost every day. He didn’t ever rest.” 

Her father could afford the basics but wasn’t able to save. “We didn’t buy clothes every day,” Salgadu recalled, “but we had enough. It was not so difficult life.”

But in October 1995, as Salgadu was anticipating college, her father fell ill. Weakened by heart disease, he was forced to give up his job and his $400 monthly salary. With ailing parents and no income, the family fell into desperate straits. “We didn’t even have a dollar to go to doctor,” Salgadu recalled. Once self-sufficient, Salgadu’s family was suddenly reduced to borrowing rice from neighbors and living off fruit from the garden. “Sometimes we didn’t have money to pay for electricity,” she said. 

With no government safety net, Salgadu had no choice but to postpone college and look for work — a nearly impossible task for a teenage girl with her background. Out of desperation, she turned to local garment factories, notorious for low wages and poor working conditions, hoping to make at least a fraction of her father’s salary. But she was unsuccessful. “I couldn’t find anything,” she recalled. “At that time, I didn’t have any work experience, only a high school diploma.”

“But the most difficult,” she added, “was my parents were sick and suffering, and I couldn’t help.”

Salgadu contacted a cousin in Singapore who had helped other women find work as nannies. She was then directed to a nearby “employment agency” that vowed to set her up as a nanny in another country. When Salgadu asked how much it would cost, the agency instructed her to provide funds for expediting a passport, she said. There was no formal contract, just the faint promise that she would soon be making 150 Singapore dollars (about $120 U.S.) per month to send back home.

In April 1996, Salgadu left Sri Lanka for Singapore with nothing but a passport, a change of clothes and a small family photo album. “My parents didn’t want me to go,” she said, “but I told them they had no choice; I wanted to support them, and I wanted them to be well and live [a] long life.” 

Salgadu soon found herself working for a wealthy, middle-aged Singapore couple, along with their live-in son and his wife, both in their 30s. Salgadu said they also had a small child and a baby on the way. She believes the family owned a department store. Salgadu did not disclose their names. 

Her workday began at 4 a.m. First she made morning tea. Then she washed the two cars, a black and a red Mercedes. Then she returned to the kitchen to cook breakfast and lunch. Between meals, she would care for the children while their mother worked as a nurse, even as their grandmother, Salgadu’s boss, stayed home. Then she would clean: eight bedrooms, eight bathrooms, a living room and two dining rooms (one for family dinners and one for parties), she said. Some days, she’d clean the curtains and wash the windows. Laundry was expected to be done by hand, as the family wore mostly designer clothes of fine fabrics. 

Around 6 or 7 p.m., Salgadu would cook dinner. At 9 or 10 p.m., she would serve it. Once the family had eaten and the dining room was spotless, she was allowed to eat what she had cooked. On nights when they hosted parties, there was more work, but usually Salgadu was in bed by midnight.

“On Sundays, I’d do all my work and then go to [the Buddhist] temple,” she said of her time off. “I was allowed to leave for a few hours — not every week, but at least once a month.”

At the end of the first month, she was paid. But instead of the 150 Singapore dollars she was expecting, she received only 50 Singapore dollars ($40 U.S.). When she asked her employer why, she was told that the rest went to the agency for arranging the position. For the next six months, she received only $40 per month but didn’t dare complain. “That was enough for my parents to get medication and food,” Salgadu said.

The situation was far from ideal, but she said she didn’t plan to stay long. If she put in a few years’ hard work, she thought she could save enough money to return home. But in the spring of 1998, her plans were dashed when her employer announced that she and her husband would be traveling to the United States — to Los Angeles — to visit their daughter. They expected Salgadu to travel with them.

Salgadu resisted. If anything happened to her parents while she was away, it would be too difficult and too expensive to return to Sri Lanka. But her employer insisted, assuring her that the trip would take only two weeks. In distress, Salgadu called the agency for support. “They said [they] couldn’t do anything, because my employer bought me. They said, ‘They paid a lot of money for you. They’ve been a customer for over 20 years, and if you don’t do what they say, we will cancel your working permit.’ ” Salgadu claims the agency also threatened to report her to the authorities in Singapore. 

But even as her feeling of foreboding increased, Salgadu resolved that this was the only way to help her parents. She relented, and her employer took her to the U.S. Embassy in Singapore to obtain a travel visa. When the interviewing officer asked about her employment conditions, Salgadu said she lied.

“I was so scared and [my employer] was right next to me.”

The officer approved her travel. “That was the last time I saw my passport,” Salgadu said.

She arrived in Los Angeles in March 1998. At the airport, as she collected the family’s ample luggage, Salgadu was instructed that during the two weeks of their visit she would tend to their daughter’s home the same way she had tended to theirs back in Singapore. She would also care for their daughter’s two small children — a girl, 4, and a boy, 7. Salgadu had no idea of the torments that awaited her.

After two weeks, Salgadu’s employers — the middle-aged couple from Singapore — announced that they would be traveling to Niagara Falls and Canada. Salgadu was ordered to stay behind and continue working for their daughter. “[They said] ‘Just listen to her and make her happy and do what she wants,’ ” Salgadu recalled. The couple promised they would be back to collect her at the end of their trip. 

Two weeks went by. 

Then another two weeks.

Then another. And another. … 

Salgadu finally asked if she could send a letter to her family. Her new boss agreed, but added an ominous instruction: “Tell [your family], do not put your name in the address. It has to be my name,” Salgadu said the woman told her. 

For four months, Salgadu heard nothing from her original employers. Day after day, she inquired as to their whereabouts, to no avail. Finally, she said the daughter told her, “Don’t ask me this question you’re always asking me! You don’t have nothing to do? Go clean the window, go clean the car.”

The daughter told Salgadu that her parents had “things to do” back in Singapore and had left the country. They would not return. Salgadu had no passport, no money, no friends. She was a prisoner in the house where she worked, forbidden from answering the door, the phone, and given no time off. She was paid no wages. 

“I was so sad,” she said of the increasingly bleak circumstances. “I got my first letter from Sri Lanka [that summer], and it said my dad had passed away. So I was crying, and I told her I wanted to go home and see my mother. She was so mean to me. She said, ‘I don’t want to hear you crying. I have a lot of things to do, and we spent a lot of money to bring you here, and I need a housekeeper, and I cannot just let you go.’ ”

I cannot just let you go …

Salgadu pleaded for money to send home. “I [kept] asking, ‘I want to send money, I have to help my family, that’s the reason I left my country.’ ” 

But her keeper grew increasingly impatient with Salgadu’s pleas. And one day, she violently lashed out at her. “I was in the kitchen putting away the dishes, and I was so sad,” Salgadu recalled. “[I told her] that my mom keeps writing me letters, and I don’t know what to tell her. I told her, ‘I’m ready to go home.’ And then she got really upset with me and started hitting me. She started throwing plates and cups at me, and my finger was cut. I was bleeding so badly, the skin was hanging out. I tried to sit down on the floor because I felt dizzy. She said, ‘You’re wasting time. Go finish cleaning. Nobody wants to hear you crying!’ I told her, ‘I’m bleeding.’ She said, ‘Do I look like I care about that?’ ” 

Salgadu said the woman’s two young children tried to comfort her. “They tried to stop me crying,” she recalled. “They were telling me, ‘Don’t worry, if your father died, he’s going to be watching you.’ ”

At this point in the interview, Salgadu’s eyes well up with tears. It has been 15 years since these traumas took place, but her memories remain raw and painful. She tells me how her trafficker held her mother’s letters hostage, making her beg for them. 

I ask Salgadu how she responded to the woman’s cruelty. Did she ever lash out? Did she try to run away? 

The daily degradations wore away at her will, she said. Rather than resist, she simply became resigned. Besides, she thought, if she escaped, where would she go? She had no contacts in the United States and no money. “I didn’t even know like, what is 911, or where is the embassy where I could ask for help,” she said. Even the guests who visited the house or who might have surmised her existence had never actually seen her. She was always locked in her room when others came, no more than an apparition. 

“At that time, I felt so numb,” she said.   

For 26 months, she lived that way — without recourse, without dignity, without hope. 

Finally, on the morning of May 11, 2000, a group of strangers knocked at the door. It was U.S. Immigration.

For two days, four immigration officers stalked the house, ringing the doorbell, day and night. But inside, Salgadu’s traffickers ignored them. When Salgadu asked her trafficker who it was, the woman replied that it was the U.S. Census. But Salgadu sensed something amiss. 

On May 12, the officers returned one more time. The traffickers scrambled to hide Salgadu before answering the door. Then they instructed her to put on one of the woman’s fine dresses and pretend she was a visiting niece. 

“My body was shaking. I was so worried. The immigration agent said his name, showed me the badge, but I had no idea what was immigration. He asked me, ‘Do you have your passport?’ I said, ‘No I don’t have it, but my boss have it.’ Then she said not to call her boss,” Salgadu recalled, laughing at the irony. “Then she bring me a cup of tea, [but] I was shaking so much I spilled the tea on the table.”

The immigration officer told Salgadu she did not have to stay in that house, that she could leave with the officers that day. “I didn’t know who he [was], but to hear that I don’t have to be there, I was so relieved,” she said.

It turned out that a neighbor had called immigration to report the family. Salgadu was brought downtown, questioned and placed in the care of the Good Shepherd Center, a homeless shelter for women and children, where she was given food and a place to sleep. It was the first night in two years that she slept in a bed — and the first time in four years that she was allowed to sleep through the night. 

Over the following weeks, people from CAST came daily to meet with her, assigning her a case manager for legal proceedings and to help her transition into American life. 

Although the laws at the time were not sufficient to fully prosecute her traffickers, a lawyer did procure for her nominal back wages in exchange for signing a nondisclosure agreement.

Salgadu’s debriefing process was long and arduous, and she told me it took three weeks before she finally confessed to CAST that she was not, in fact, her trafficker’s niece, as she had told immigration, but rather their indentured servant. A month later, Salgadu was connected to other survivors of trafficking and was shocked to discover she was not alone. 

“I saw that it’s not only me, [and that] it could be worse,” Salgadu said. “Some other survivors were raped, [some were enslaved] for more than 14 years. I couldn’t believe it, but it’s the truth. I’m not the first or the last, but with my experience maybe I can [do something to] change it.” 

Now 37, Salgadu is a certified nurse’s assistant with her own apartment and car, and a community of friends. She now makes more money per month than her father did, and has enough left over to send to her sister in Sri Lanka, which has helped put her nieces and nephews through school. 

In 2007, as Salgadu’s mother lay on her deathbed, Salgadu was easily able to buy a ticket to Sri Lanka and say goodbye. She has since turned the letters her mother sent her in captivity into the play, “Letters From My Mother,” which was performed by East West Players in Los Angeles. She said she hopes to publish it, and that she still dreams of one day attending college.

At the end of our interview, I tell Salgadu about the holiday of Passover, and how it commemorates the Exodus from Egypt. I explain the story of the Hebrew slaves, the evil Pharaoh and how God rescued the Israelites from bondage, leading them, with Moses as their guide, to the Promised Land. 

For Salgadu, Los Angeles has been both prison and Promised Land, in the end becoming a place of great possibility and transformation. 

“I believe in God and that he’s watching,” Salgadu told me. “I have freedom, and I can make my own choices. So I try to do good with my story, share [it] with other people so they can learn, and I try not to go back and be stuck in that place …”

The narrow place. 

“The pain is never going to heal completely,” she said. “But my voice and my case [can help ensure] it will not happen to somebody else. I still want to give back what I have. Nobody can stop me.” 

Modern slavery: Answering the cry


Modern slavery is everywhere, and women principally are its victims. 

Whether kidnapped by a single deviant, as appears to be the case in Cleveland, or trafficked en masse across national borders for purposes of labor or sex exploitation, women’s lives are being stolen from them. Unlike Amanda Berry, Georgina DeJesus and Michelle Knight, whose ordeals currently dominate the national news, most victims suffer — and sometimes die — in silence and anonymity.  

In the last decade, human trafficking and enslavement worldwide has exploded, rising from more than 12 million victims in 2005 to nearly 21 million victims in 2012. Everyone from organized crime syndicates to street gangs has (re)discovered the cheap cost of a reusable good — human life. 

According to a 2012 report by State Attorney General Kamala Harris, global profits from human trafficking surpassed $32 billion last year with almost 18,000 people smuggled into the United States destined for forced labor in industries and homes across our country. Shockingly, thousands more are American citizens — most often vulnerable girls, many of them runaways — who are lured via social media and other means into forced prostitution. 

These statistics are daunting, but there is hope — hope born of human kindness. 

“S” was brought to the United States from Indonesia to work as a domestic servant for a wealthy couple in La Cañada — a suburb of Los Angeles. The family confiscated her passport, ordered her not to speak to anyone outside the home and forced her to work without pay 16 hours a day, seven days a week. If she tried to escape, they warned, she would be raped, arrested and left to starve in prison, or captured by thugs who would harvest her organs and leave her to die in the street. 

The family confiscated her passport, ordered her not to speak to anyone outside the home. … If she tried to escape, they warned, she would be raped, arrested and left to starve in prison, or captured by thugs who would harvest her organs and leave her to die in the street.  

Despite these threats, “S” repeatedly tried to escape. The first time, she approached members of a construction crew working across the street, asking them to take her to the Indonesian Consulate, but they did not know where to go. Her next attempt was with a local plumber working down the block. 

Plumber: A lady approached me across the street with a note and request me to call the embassy. I called, and they claim they did not know her. I told her I had to finish my job. I’ll try to come back out to talk to her more. 

Attorney: What happened when you came back out?

Plumber: She was gone. I never saw her again.

This testimony was taken from the trial of a civil lawsuit brought by Bet Tzedek Legal Services with pro bono co-counsel at O’Melveny & Myers LLP.

Ultimately, “S” was freed because those initial encounters gave her courage to call an American friend, who alerted the police. The traffickers were prosecuted criminally and were sued civilly by Bet Tzedek, resulting in what is believed to be the first successful civil jury verdict under the California Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2005. At trial, the traffickers claimed that “S” was a guest in their home and argued that she fabricated the enslavement story in order to obtain a T-Visa, a special visa reserved by the federal government for trafficking victims.

“S” is among many victims whose stories have a happy ending because complete strangers recognized their plight and took action. The next three women, all clients of Bet Tzedek, never would have escaped without help. 

“A” was trafficked from Peru by a college professor who forced her to work as an unpaid domestic servant. A tenant on the professor’s property sensed something was wrong and gave her Bet Tzedek’s phone number. Following a series of secret meetings between “A” and her attorney, the professor became suspicious, drugged “A” and dumped her in Tijuana. Bet Tzedek found “A,” alerted the Peruvian Consulate and secured her release.  

“J” was brought to Los Angeles from the Philippines to work as a nanny. Once here, she was confined to the family condo, without pay, without her passport and without access to a phone or computer. Her first attempt to escape failed when “J” panicked and rejected the assistance of a health care practitioner who tried to help her. A second attempt succeeded when the condo doorman, who asked her if something was wrong, helped her to sneak out of the building and run away. 

“M” left an abusive husband in Ethiopia to work as a domestic servant in California, even though she spoke no English. Her employers beat her repeatedly, causing multiple injuries, including broken teeth. After one particularly brutal beating, she kicked open the back door of the house where she was being held and escaped. “M” lived on the streets for almost a month before a woman in a park approached her to ask if she needed help and took her to Little Ethiopia, where community members found her shelter. During her captivity, she had frequented many public places with the family, including Disneyland.

“These stories are all too common,” said Kay Buck, executive director of Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking (CAST), a Los Angeles-based nonprofit that provides services to trafficking victims and trains law enforcement officials, first responders and legal advocates how to recognize and assist victims. CAST has spearheaded anti-trafficking efforts resulting in the creation of stronger laws, including the 2005 Victims Protection Act and the 2010 Transparency in Supply Chains Act, which requires any retailer or manufacturer with annual worldwide revenues of more than $100 million to disclose its efforts to eradicate slavery and human trafficking.

These laws, and others at the federal level, form the backbone of a growing structure designed to combat trafficking. But laws are meaningless without civic participation.

HOW YOU CAN HELP

Be aware. Trafficking victims are everywhere, and they often exhibit characteristics similar to victims of domestic violence and sexual abuse.  Physical indicators may include bruises and other evidence of beatings and assault, as well as untreated critical illnesses or sexually transmitted diseases.  Indicators of psychological distress may include poor dental health, depression and extreme anxiety. First responders should look for lack of personal possessions and numerous inconsistencies in personal history. 

Step up. If you see someone who needs help, call the Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking (CAST) at (888) 539-2373 or call the National Human Trafficking Resource Center hotline at (888) 373-7888.  Both are 24-hour hotlines.  You can also text INFO or HELP to BeFree (233733). 

Be informed. Consumers can make a difference. To find out more about the business practices of companies you buy from, go to slaveryfootprint.org or free2work.org.

Get involved. CAST and Bet Tzedek could not help nearly as many clients without the assistance of pro bono attorneys and other volunteers. To donate your time, go to ­bettzedek.org/volunteer or castla.org/volunteer


Elissa Barrett is vice president and general counsel of Bet Tzedek Legal Services. Kevin Kish is director of Bet Tzedek’s Employment Rights Project.

Preventing human trafficking: You can help. Here are some guidelines:


Be aware. Trafficking victims are everywhere, and they often exhibit characteristics similar to victims of domestic violence and sexual abuse.  Physical indicators may include bruises and other evidence of beatings and assault, as well as untreated critical illnesses or sexually transmitted diseases.  Indicators of psychological distress may include poor dental health, depression and extreme anxiety. First responders should look for lack of personal possessions and numerous inconsistencies in personal history. 

Step up. If you see someone who needs help, call the Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking (CAST) at (888) 539-2373 or call the National Human Trafficking Resource Center hotline at (888) 373-7888.  Both are 24-hour hotlines.  You can also text INFO or HELP to BeFree (233733). 

Be informed. Consumers can make a difference. To find out more about the business practices of companies you buy from, go to slaveryfootprint.org or free2work.org.

Get involved. CAST and Bet Tzedek could not help nearly as many clients without the assistance of pro bono attorneys and other volunteers. To donate your time, go to ­bettzedek.org/volunteer or castla.org/volunteer

Funny, They Don’t Sound Jewish


Laura Bush on Howard Stern; J. Lo waking up with a pimple on her nose; Homer Simpson running for governor of California. No, it’s not a slow day on “Live on E!” It’s a game of “Scenes from a Hat” — one of 40 interactive games that improv comedy troupe ¡The Los Hombres! has in its repertoire. The game, in which audience members write down funny scenes that they would like to see acted out, is just one way the eight-member cast connects with the audience.

“There’s something great about improv that doesn’t happen in other theater,” said Joshua Glazer, the group’s founder. “The audience learns what’s happening at the exact same time you do. So there’s a spark between you and them and it just feeds off it, so everything’s funny.”

Upon graduation from M.I.T., Glazer founded the Los Angeles-based group two years ago. With its founding members consisting of six men and one woman, the group came to be known ironically as ¡The Los Hombres!, because of course, “two articles is funnier than one,” Glazer said.

But aside from their name, for most of the group’s 5 1/2 Jewish members, it is their Jewish background that inspires much of their comedy.

“Jewish humor is, to me, the funniest humor in the world — the rhythm of Jewish humor and that ‘if we don’t laugh about it we’ll cry instead’ philosophy,” Jewish cast member and writer Michael Konik said. “Though we are not an overtly Jewish group, I think our sensibility is a very Jewish sense of humor.”

Cast member Michael Feldman said that the group is simply perpetuating a trend that can be seen throughout Jewish history — dealing with tragedy and sadness with humor.

“It’s about finding some sort of a recourse through humor to deal with the horrible things that life can give you,” Feldman said. “I think that’s what we try to do a little bit…. If there are problems in your life and you face that thing, you can find a way to deal with it and process it.”

While the troupe members hope that their show can offer the same therapy for their audience as it does for them personally, their primary goal is to inspire laughter.

“Who knows if laughing cures cancer,” said Nickie Bryar, the group’s Jewish mother (she just had her first baby), one of four women in the troup today. “That would be fantastic. But I think it’s really important that people have a good time.”

The Los Hombres! performs every Friday in September at
the Second City Studio Theatre, 8-9 p.m. 8156 Melrose Ave. Admission $10. For
more information, visit

‘Old’ Cast Young-at-Heart


Mathilde Giffard, the title character of "My Old Lady," is a 94-year-old Parisian, though she tries to pass for 92. She has a spinster daughter, Chloe, who is around 50. They are visited by an American, Mathias "Jim" Gold, also fiftyish, and Jewish.

That’s the whole cast. No well-endowed ingenue, no muscular hunk, no rebellious teenager within 50 kilometers.

But to allay a Hollywood producer’s worst fears, there is romance. Indeed, one of the play’s revelations is that a man and woman past the half-century mark can fall in love and — don’t tell the children — even think about s-e-x.

Playwright Israel Horovitz, who has lived for long stretches in Paris, has placed this trio in the midst of a typically French legalistic- bureaucratic dilemma.

Gold has come to Paris to claim the only legacy left by a wealthy father, a spacious, luxurious apartment in the City of Lights, with a magnificent view (never seen) of the Jardin du Luxembourg.

Broke, thrice divorced and about as screwed up as you can get without being institutionalized, Gold hopes to sell the apartment quickly and profitably and return home.

At the apartment, he encounters Madame Giffard, who was a teacher of English, which is fortunate since otherwise neither Gold nor the audience could grasp what’s going on.

Under some quaint law, probably Napoleonic, the apartment was purchased cheaply by Gold’s father, but the residing occupant could not be evicted. Au contraire, the resident must be heavily subsidized until she dies. Only then does the purchaser (or his heir) own the place.

Giffard, sharp and puckish, warns Gold not to get up his hopes that she will soon pass away. She tells of a man who bought a Paris apartment counting, on its 75-year-old resident’s imminent death. She spited him by living to 114.

Gold, having neither money nor friends, moves in with the old lady and in lengthy conversations and drinking sessions (on his part) discovers that she was quite a piece of work in the olden days.

She had a fling with the legendary jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt, "of course" knew Henry Miller and James Joyce, and was acquainted with Ernest Hemingway ("not very interesting. Bulls, bells, balls…").

Mathilde’s daughter, Chloe, a fine figure of a woman, is horrified by the intrusion of the uncouth, hard-drinking American and swears she will find a way to get rid of him.

Playwright Horovitz, whose 50 or so plays include the well-known "Growing Up Jewish" trilogy ("Today, I Am a Fountain Pen," "A Rosen by Any Other Name" and "The Chopin Playoffs") does not make much of Gold’s Jewishness, but occasional bits of dialogue hint that the topic lies just below the surface.

The following exchange illustrates the point, as well as the old lady’s conversational style.

GOLD: Are you Jewish, Madame Giffard?

OLD LADY: "No. I’m not. There were times in my life when I wished I were Jewish. Somebody I loved a great deal was Jewish, and for him I wished I could have been Jewish, too. Not that I admire the Jewish rules any more than I admire the Catholic rules. I adore eating my coquillages and saucisson, shellfish and sausage, both of which are forbidden to Jews. I would have been a sinning Jew, all of my life, much the way I have been a sinning Catholic. But I do know for certain that the Jews in France, no matter what they ate or didn’t eat, deserved a far greater apology than Mitterand offered them in his "Memories" — his apologia without apology. And now I would like to drink my soup, before it gets cold. It’s filled with shellfish and pork, and could send many Jews straight to hell.

Under the direction of David Esbjornson, the three veteran actors — Sian Phillips as the old lady, Jan Maxwell as Chloe and Peter Friedman as Gold — play beautifully off each other.

Friedman, in particular, is pitch perfect as a middle-aged man, a self-described loser all his life, who learns, to his great surprise, that his future may not be without hope and promise.

"My Old Lady," a Mark Taper Forum production playing at the James Doolittle Theatre in Hollywood, runs through Feb. 10. Ticket prices are $30-$44. For information, call (213) 628-2772.

The Artistry of ‘Art’


“Tongue of a Bird,” now playing at the Mark Taper Forum, is a confoundedly difficult play. I’m not sure whether that’s due to this reviewer’s denseness or to the layers upon layers of meaning and tortured psychological undertones offered by playwright Ellen McLaughlin.

In its simplest synopsis, the all-female play is about search-and-rescue pilot Maxine (a strapping Cherry Jones), who is importuned by a mother (Diane Verona) to find her 12-year old daughter (Ashley Johnson), kidnapped in the wintry mountains of the Adirondacks.

After days of searching, Maxine finds the girl — dead.

But that’s only the framework, or, if you will, the metaphor, for the much more complex searches that propel the characters. To unravel the motivations and repressions of the play’s five women forces viewers into their own searches for comprehension, along trails sometimes fascinating and illuminating, at other times maddeningly convoluted.

Matters aren’t made easier by the reappearance of Maxine’s dead mother (Sharon Lawrence), who swoops in on wires from up high, much as did playwright McLaughlin when she played the airborne Angel in Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America.”

Some welcome relief is provided by the astringent humor of Maxine’s Polish grandmother. She is played by Marian Seldes, who shines in a uniformly fine cast, directed by Lisa Peterson.

“Tongue of a Bird” continues through Feb. 7. Call (213) 628- 2772 for tickets. — Tom Tugend, Contributing Editor