It’s always nice to have Horton Foote’s people around, particularly in Manhattan, to which they bring color, wisdom and wit of a different sort than that usually doled out in our town.
Foote’s folks all live in Harrison, Texas, a small town he invented and populated all by himself in many plays that eloquently tell us about Their Town. Now, Primary Stages has compiled an evening of three short ones that reveal 3 styles of this gifted writer. His plays give us insight into a highly defined group of Americans, and he writes eloquently of them, just as AR Gurney does with his Buffalo WASPS, as Clifford Odets did with his urban 1930s Jews and Italians, as Alan Ayckbourn continues to do with the rural British middle class, as Athol Fugard does with South Africans, white and black, as August Wilson did with middle class blacks in America.
The first of the three one-acts is called Blind Date and it is as hilarious as it is touching.
It’s 1928 and Aunt Dolores is playing host to visiting niece Sarah Nancy, doing everything possible to prepare the young lady for an impending blind date, which she has arranged with some difficulty. Sarah Nancy is not co-operating, and has only reluctantly agreed to participate by the time Felix, the young man, arrives. He’s affable enough, and willing to give it a try, and Mr. Foote shows an ability to create wacky and very funny moments as Sarah Nancy goes through the motions, then makes a mess of things, sending Felix flying back to his Mama, who had connived with Dolores in the first place to make this evening happen.
Foote orchestrates the 30 minute play beautifully, bringing it to a quiet and hopeful ending that seems just right. His people could be related to Tennessee Williams’ family in The Glass Menagerie, and Blind Date, if expanded, might well have served for a full evening.
Hallie Foote, daughter and torch bearer for her recently departed Dad, plays his women better than anyone in the world. Her “Aunt Dolores” is priceless and she manages to make a meddling harridan into someone we genuinely root for. Andrea Lynn Green is equally adept at getting laughs and pathos out of totally maladjusted Sarah Nancy. As is, it’s a delightful introduction to Horton Foote’s world.
The second play is called The One Armed Man and one can only hope it wasn’t inspired by Tennessee Williams’ short story “One Arm”, for it shares little of that work’s power except its title. I’d put a sub-title under this one, and it would be “An Experiment,” for in it Foote attempts to get tough and introduces an embittered and deranged ex-employee in a cotton mill who returns to his employer seeking revenge for the accident that caused him to lose an arm. He wants it back! A gun is introduced, there is some genuine suspense, but the confrontation borders on the comical, and the ending is — well, there isn’t any ending. It’s as though Mr. Foote had lost interest mid-point, or simply realized there could be no meaningful end — so he just brought the curtain down. He should have filed this attempt at melodrama under “E” for “Experiment”.
The more populated third play is The Midnight Caller and it’s a worthy one, but at this point in its development, it seems cluttered and overblown. Now we’re in 1952, in the same set as Act I, but now it’s a boarding house run by Mrs. Crawford, another colorful matron played by Hallie Foote. She’s got a houseful of women as guests, including Alma Jean Jordan who is a confirmed bachelorette at 40, and when she learns that a man is about to move in, she freaks out.
Mrs. Rowena Douglas, a dowager retiree (played by the always delightful Jane Houdyshell) is happy to have some new blood in the house, and “Cutey” Spencer is thrilled as she’s got a crush on him the moment she lays on him. He is a very quiet, gentle man, and clearly not out to upset any apple carts. Complications are piled on, another tenant is moved in, and the play gets a little out of hand as it moves in several directions at once. There is an explanatory soliloquy from the last tenant late in the play that sounds fearfully like pure exposition, and I like to think that Mr.Foote would have gone back to this play which tries too hard to get everything in. There is good material here, and it sticks to its theme that an extraordinary incident can change the course of some troubled lives, but that, in all likelihood, life will absorb such incidents and not change at all for some who are destined for more mundane fates. The theme is eloquent, but the dramatizing needs enlarging and shaping. It does offer a fine cast a chance to inhabit characters who have range in them, and for that alone it is welcome.
This is just the kind of evening for which Primary Stages is known and admired. Later in the season they will bring us a new play by Daisy Foote, another gifted daughter of the playwright. In January a comedy, a re-examination of the hilarious All In The Timing, an evening of 10 hilarious ten minute plays that launched David Ives’ career in 1993, and in March a new work, The Call, the story of an adoption that might stir a cultural divide. As they say, stay tuned.
Harrison, TX: Three Plays by Horton Foote is currently scheduled thru Sept 15, 2012 at 59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th St, NYC.
Details and tickets
Richard Seff, who, in his career on Broadway has been a performer, agent, writer, and librettist, has written the book for Shine! The Horatio Alger Musical!, which debuted at the 2010 New York Musical Theatre Festival. He is also author of Supporting Player: My Life Upon the Wicked Stage, celebrating his lifetime on stage and behind the scenes, available through online booksellers, including Amazon.com. Read more at RichardSeff.com
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