Since his death at age 92, Horton Foote, who during his lifetime was known primarily for his Oscar-winning film adaptation of “To Kill A Mockingbird” and for his original screenplay for “Tender Mercies,” has steadily gained a reputation as one of America’s foremost dramatists, thanks in part to the resuscitation of his play“The Trip to Bountiful,” currently on Broadway in a production directed by Michael Wilson, and to the ambitious and completely lovely “Orphans Home Cycle,” which was produced at the Signature Theater, directed by Michael Wilson, shortly after Foote died four years ago.
Now director Wilson has teamed up with the Signature once again to produce another Horton Foote play – a “new” one – with a cast that should make any knowledgeable New York theatergoer salivate. None disappoint.
This is not the Horton Foote we got to know from Bountiful or from the Orphans Home Cycle, a series of nine plays that focus over several decades on a family in the fictional town of Harrison, Texas, trying, in the face of hardships specific to each generation, to do the decent thing.
Some of the characters that form the interlocking web of family and neighbors in “The Old Friends” seem closer to those in Lillian Hellman’s “Little Foxes” or Tennessee Williams’ “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” – vivid, sometimes vicious Southerners, who are out of sorts and out for themselves.
Lois Smith plays Mamie Borden who lives unhappily in the home of her brittle, bitchy daughter Julia, portrayed to perfection by Veanne Cox, and Julia’s rude, fat drunken husband Albert, played by Adam LeFevre persuasively enough to make me eager to see him as Big Daddy in some future production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.
Mamie’s son Hugo left town long ago, but as the play begins, he and his wife Sybil, who have spent much of their life in South America, are returning home. Sybyl (Hattie Foote, the playwright’s daughter and the consummate interpreter of his work) is literate, likable, impoverished.
Then tragedy strikes. Hugo dies of a heart attack.
But, one senses, the lives of most of the characters would be just as sad and stagnant without this precipitating event.
Betty Buckley portrays a woman inextricably in everybody else’s life — and in their face: Gertrude Hayworth Sylvester Ratcliff, despite the elegant name, is a mean drunk. She is also very wealthy, the recent widow of a rich and, we eventually learn, unscrupulous man named Gaynor. (“I hated him and he hated me,” Gertrude says. “Twenty-five years of hell.”) She is a repellent character, and Buckley attacks the role without vanity but with an understanding of human nature that makes Gertrude less monstrous.
Gertrude has the hots for Gaynor’s brother, Howard, a handsome, decent man played by the ruggedly handsome Cotter Smith, who was never as successful as his brother Gaynor, and now is in charge of Gaynor’s farms. He is Gertrude’s employee – and 30 years earlier, he and Sybil were a couple.
They are all of them old friends, and, as we learn after one drunken encounter after another, one revelation after another of pettiness and selfishness and greed, the title is meant ironically.
“The Old Friends” is one of the first full-length plays that Foote wrote, although he worked on it over the years, completing a rewrite not long before he died. If it is more in-your-face and less nuanced than some of his later work, if most of the characters are over-the-top and unpleasant in a way that Foote’s people rarely are, that may be part of its fascination and its appeal. It is a play worth seeing, a chance to witness some extraordinary actors all together on one stage.
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The Old Friends
Signature Theater, 42nd Street and 10th Avenue
By Horton Foote
Directed by Michael Wilson
Jeff Cowie (Scenic Design), David C. Woolard (Costume Design), Rui Rita (Lighting Design), John Gromada (Sound Design), Paul Huntley (Wig & Hair Design), Gillian Lane-Plesica (Dialect Coach), Mark Olsen (Fight Director).
Cast: Betty Buckley, Veanne Cox, Adam LeFevre, Hallie Foote, Sean Lyons, Novella Nelson, Melle Powers, Cotter Smith, Lois Smith
All tickets through September 29 are $25. Tickets beginning October 1 are $75.