"The Old Friends" at The Pershing Square Signature Center, October 17, 2013
(Photo by Joan Marcus)
Horton Foote was a prolific playwright. The Old Friends is actually a sequel to his second full-length play, Only the Heart
first produced in 1942. It took nearly 20 years to get the first
exploratory production of TOF, and another 20 before Signature Theatre
produced a reading. This 2002 event inspired Mr. Foote to write the
version currently on stage at the Signature.
I would love
to say that this "new" work from the late Mr. Foote rises as a crowning
achievement on a lifetime of good work. Sometimes, there are reasons a
play takes so long to make it to the stage. Renowned playwrights from
Shakespeare to Tennessee Williams wrote plays late in their careers that
failed to achieve the same level of mastery as works form their primes (Cymbeline, anyone?).
TOF tells us of the Borden-Prices and their titular old friends
Gertrude (Betty Buckley) and Gaynor Ratliff and his brother Howard
(Cotter Smith). Gaynor has mercifully died before the play begins and
escapes the indignities both caused and suffered by his now filthy rich
widow and the almost-as-well-off Borden-Prices. Also dead as the play
begins, is Sybil's (Hallie Foote) husband Hugo who has left her
penniless, much like her mother-in-law Mamie Borden (Lois Smith).
sister-in-law Julia (Veanne Cox) and her husband Albert Price (Adam
LeFevre) have grudgingly taken Mamie in after forcing her to sign over
her remaining assets. Sybil and her husband had planned to retire
nearby, but with him gone and leaving her destitute, Julia is less than
pleased with the prospect of supporting another widow. Toss into the mix
a cloudy history of Sybil's father losing everything to Getrude's
father, and selling the rest to Julia's father and you've got a Russian
tragedy in the making.
My biggest complaint is with the
play's uneven story-telling. Characters get dragged down with
paragraphs of dull exposition, much of it repeated by various
characters. It's only when the action picks up with the plot at hand
that things get interesting.
The cast is
excellent. Ms. Buckley dominates as the brutish, selfish Gertrude. Her
rants are the highlights of the evening, the funniest of which is one
ending in the mating call of the southern belle, "I'm drunk!" Ms. Smith
matches that bravura with her usual understated intensity (though she
did seem a bit shaky on her lines in a couple of spots). Ms. Foote's
Sybil strives for a quiet dignity, but sometimes comes off as merely
mousy. Mr. Smith's Howard spends most of the play as kind to the point
of spineless. Even when he finally stands up for himself, Howard
remains an apology of a role.
Director Michael Wilson
keeps things apace, but probably could have cut 10-15 minutes in
redundant exposition. Production values are excellent, particularly
David C. Woolard's costumes.
The Old Friends closed on October 20 after a two-week extension.