I am ashamed to say that until last night I had never seen a Horton Foote play. Some years ago I read his Pulitzer Prize winning work, THE YOUNG MAN FROM ATLANTA. Being ignorant of the complex backstories of the characters who had appeared in other Foote plays, I was disturbed by what seemed to be a defense of the provincial homophobia of the characters. I decided it is time to give his highly celebrated work another try. Foote, who died in 2009, had a career that spanned over 65 years. He wrote successfully for film, television and the stage. Most of his stage work takes place in a small, fictional Texas town. He is a master of domestic realism. His plays don't have the metaphysical element one finds in Edward Albee's work or the poetry of the outsider one finds in the plays of Tennessee Williams. Nonetheless, his dialogue is beautiful to hear, his narratives well crafted and his characters fully drawn. Like Chekhov, Foote is interested in characters trapped in a provincial society. Like Chekhov, his tactic of getting his exposition out of the way at the outset is not totally convincing, but once past that. his plays are absorbing and wonderful vehicles for good acting.
THE OLD FRIENDS, now having its premiere run at the wonderful Signature Theatre, has had a long history. First drafted in the mid-1960s as a sequel to a play he wrote in the mid-1940s, it received a staged reading in 1982 and a reading at the Signature in 2002 but for some reason was never given a full production. After the Signature reading, Foote embarked on revisions, but the play was never produced in his lifetime (he died in 2009). After seeing this brilliantly acted production, one wonders why the play took so long to get to the stage. THE OLD FRIENDS is a tense family melodrama. It might remind you of Lillian Hellman's THE LITTLE FOXES, though it is better written and less overtly melodramatic -- here, as in Chekhov, guns go off but no one is killed. Its brilliant characterizations of Southern women on the verge of nervous breakdowns might remind you of Tennessee Williams, but without the Gothic elements. The nastiness might recall Edward Albee's work (this was first written about the time of WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF), but without the despair.
THE OLD FRIENDS is an ironic title for a play about a group of small town folk who despise each other but can't seem to live apart. The play centers on three different but powerful women. Two of them, Julia (Veanne Cox) and Gertrude (Betty Buckley) see themselves as the wealthiest, most powerful women in their small town. Neither is happy. Julia and her husband Albert have a long, unhappy, childless marriage (the wealthy women in this town either aren't very fertile or didn't have much of a sexual relationship with their husbands). Albert won't speak to Julia's mother, who lives with them (did she engineer this unhappy marriage). Julia drinks to tolerate her husband, who spends most of the play drunk, her mother, and her supposed friends. Gertrude, an alcoholic, just lost her husband but hardly seems grief stricken. Most of her energy is spent clinging to her husband's younger brother, Howard (Cotter Smith), the real love of her life who has devoted himself to managing Gertrude's property holdings. In her relatively sober moments, Gertrude ruthlessly wields power to control the people around her:, particularly Howard: her alcoholic moments lead to violent, destructive tantrums. Enter Sybil (Hallie Foote), Julia's recently widowed sister-in-law, who has returned home after thirty years away. Sybil's husband, Julia's brother, was an oil speculator who lost everything. Sybil is dirt poor, but she has a quiet strength the other women lack. Sybil's re-entry into Harrison "society" is the catalyst for violent strains on the tenuous relationships of these unhappy characters.
Foote is fascinated by the ways in which materialism has corrupted the lives of these people. Their wealth and possessions don't make them happy. Indeed their dependence on things and their use of other people have poisoned their lives. Only Sybil with her books and her sense of self, Howard (who like a Chekhov character just wants to get back to the land and the simple life) and matriarch Mamie (Lois Smith) seem content, but can they live in this town without desperate Gertrude and Julia invading and literally trashing their homes and their lives?
THE OLD FRIENDS is a entertaining, troubling and totally absorbing play. Foote is not only a great craftsman; he writes dialogue that is a joy to hear. The play has been given a perfect production under the direction of Foote's longtime collaborator, Michael Wilson. What can one say about this starry cast? Betty Buckley gives a bravura performance as the monstrous Gertrude. Why has no one revived SWEET BIRD OF YOUTH for her? No one plays a poisonous grande dame better than Buckley. Hallie Foote provides a perfect contrast. Watch her quietly watching the excesses of the women she despises. She doesn't have to speak to dominate the stage. Veanne Cox captures Julia's battle against age and boredom and Lois Smith is delightful as the sweet but tough matriarch absorbing the cruelty of her daughter and son-in-law and finding joy in a simpler life. Only one male character is pivotal -- Howard, whom Gertrude fights to possess but who has always loved Sybil, who just wants to farm on his own. Cotter Smith gives Howard a good deal of dignity, but enough tentativeness to make us wonder if he has the resolve to follow his dream.
Brilliant acting of an excellent script. What more can one ask? And for $25!!
By the way, if you haven't been to the Pershing Square Signature Center, you are missing the most pleasant theatrical experience in New York City. This impressive new center, designed by Frank Gehry, has four comfortable, intimate theaters and a commodious lobby area with a nice bookshop and an excellent bar cafe with good, reasonably priced food and drink. There's usually live music in the lobby area before the performances. The Signature produces old and new work by established American playwrights. Its fare is less experimental than Playwrights Horizons, a block east on 42nd Street, which focuses on new work. Like its neighbor, the Signature attracts the best actors, directors and designers. Both theatres have friendly, young front of house workers who help make the theatergoing experience pleasant. What a contrast to the overpriced, uncomfortable Broadway houses.
THE OLD FRIENDS. Signature Theatre. September 1, 2013.