It would have been a fitting tribute to Horton Foote had he been able to see two of his progeny packin’ ’em in during the same season on and off Broadway. For The Trip to Bountiful at the Sondheim Theatre and now The Old Friends at the Pershing Square Signature Theatre way out west on 42nd Street have been doing just that. Deservedly so.
Bountiful originally came alive on the TV screen, later as a feature film and on Broadway, but Friends was conceived in an early draft in January 1964 and was completed in June 1965 under the title The Dispossessed. Various versions of the play popped up in the 1960s and 1970s but audiences were denied a glimpse until 1982 when the Herbert Berghof Playwrights’ Foundation gave it an exploratory staging in July and August of that year. It had a reading again in 2002 at the Signature Theatre in New York with a cast that included Hallie Foote and Betty Buckley. It was this reading that inspired Mr. Foote to return once again to his manuscript to deliver the play that is on now in 2013. So this is the world premiere production and you can see why it would have been fine if Mr. Foote could have seen it. Fifty years from first draft to its first full production! And finally, a play that is a major chapter in the playwright’s illustrious body of work.
Set in the 1965 in which it was conceived, it’s another look at life in the fictitious town of Harrison, Texas. Matriarch Mamie Borden and the remaining members of two longtime Texas farming families await a visit from Mamie’s son Hugo and his wife Sybil. When Sibyl arrives with alarming news, old friends on opposing sides must confront the issues surrounding legacy, loyalty, and the meaning of happiness.
Sybil acts as a catalyst plopped down in the midst of this closely knit clan. In just a couple of weeks, her visit exhumes old passions, secrets, hidden hatreds and divisions that have both bound and separated them for generations. As played by an ensemble of stellar actors, the two and a half hour traffic onstage is always compelling, often laugh out loud funny, and ultimately moving as those who should be happiest lose the battle to control those who would seem to have the least chance of achieving anything close to happiness. Harrison, Texas bears a great resemblance to Osage County, Oklahoma where Tracy Letts’ Weston family lives. A suicide propels Letts’ play, the arrival of Sybil does the same for The Old Friends.
Both playwrights offer complex characters with which good actors have a field day digging deep with the result that an attentive audience has a ripping good time watching them reveal themselves to us. Mr. Letts is a marvelous actor himself, has been a member of the Steppenwolf ensemble in Chicago for years. His plays vary in setting and mood, ranging from his Pulitzer Prize winning Osage County to a trailer trash neighborhood in Killer Joe, to a small Chicago coffee and donut shop in Superior Donuts.
Mr. Foote sticks pretty much to his Harrison world, which he has probed in most of his work. In The Old Friends, the Signature in New York has offered a superb company to breathe life into his rich characters. Betty Buckley and Hallie Foote (Mr. Foote’s daughter and major muse) head up a company that includes Cotter Smith, Lois Smith, Veanne Cox, Adam LeFevre, Sean Lyons, Melle Powers right down to Novella Nelson, now playing “Hattie, the maid”. She brings dignity and a sense of belonging to this role, small as it is. As servant to the very wealthy control freak Gertrude Hayhurst Sylvester Tatliff, her brief scene with Ms. Buckley brings yet another color to the colorful Gertrude.
By evening’s end, Buckley has used the entire palate to play Gertrude, and makes us wonder why she’s never tackled Alexandra del Lago in Sweet Bird of Youth or Regina Giddens in The Little Foxes. She did get to play Norma Desmond in the musical Sunset Boulevard but it was a treat to see her create this tasty dish without the benefit of music or lyrics.
Hallie Foote’s attack on Sybil is just right, ramrod stiff and content to live simply and on her own terms. She would seem like an easy mark for the more needy and experienced Gertrude, but again, Mr. Foote knows how to surprise us. Veanne Cox has taken the shallow fashion plate Julia Price, wealthy rival to Gertrude and turned her into a very big fish in the very small pond called Harrison. Cotter Smith has captured “Howard”, younger brother to Gertrude’s first husband, another solid rock of a character who speaks softly but ultimately carries a big stick. Lois Smith, in her 80s, is a force as the impoverished matriarch of this clan, who must suffer the indignities of dependence until she too finds a way out. Everyone in the company contributes to this rich stew of a play.
I would think that after the extended run at the Signature, the play will at long last find a home in the regional theatres across the country for in my opinion it’s right up there with the best of Letts, Lanford Wilson, A.R.Gurney, Clifford Odets, August Wilson and others who have captured segments of American society in plays that will inform and entertain us forever.
The Old Friends is onstage at The Pershing Square Signature Center/Irene Diamond Stage, 480 West 42nd Street, NYC.
Details and tickets.
Richard Seff, Broadway performer, agent, playwright, librettist, columnist adds novelist to his string of accomplishments, with the publication of his first novel, TAKE A GIANT STEP. His first book, Supporting Player: My Life Upon the Wicked Stage, celebrates his lifetime on stage and behind the scenes. Both books are available through online booksellers, including Amazon.com.
He has also written the book to SHINE! The Horatio Alger Musical which was a triple prize winner at the New York Musical Theatre Festival (NYMF).
Each year, Actors Equity recognizes the year’s most outstanding supporting player with, appropriately enough, the Richard Seff Award.
He is a member of the Outer Critics Circle.