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The Old Friends

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

The Old Friends
Hallie Foote and Betty Buckley
Photo by Joan Marcus.

What do you get when you cross Horton Foote and Tennessee Williams? Apparently The Old Friends.

In the world premiere production of this ostensibly finalized Foote work that just opened at the Pershing Square Signature Center, however, neither man gets off easy. You realize, as you likely haven't before, the powerful relationship that has long existed between the two major (and now both deceased) playwrights and their works, which powerfully document different facets of the the same melancholy chapter in American history. But you likewise can't help but conclude that the men's fragile and precarious dramatic gifts do not translate well if at all beyond the specific milieus that made them famous.

The Old Friends focuses, as Foote's plays so frequently do, on the decay of Texas and the Texan as viewed from the perspective of a family in the mythical Harrison in the year 1965. A wealthy woman, Gertrude Hayhurst Sylvester Ratliff (Betty Buckley), who's failed to recover from losing the love of her life many years earlier, wars eternally with all those around her. Chief among these are her equally rich sometimes-fried Julia (Veanne Cox), fiftysomething wife of the portly, easily riled Albert (Adam LeFevre); Howard (Cotter Smith), the caretaker of Gertrude's expansive tracts of farmland (and owner of a significant chunk of it); Sybil, who's arrived back in Harrison and is still reeling from the recent death of her husband, Hugo; and Mamie (Lois Smith), the 80-year-old mother of both Julia and Hugo who wants nothing more than to keep the peace.

Booze, jealousy-fueled recriminations, and longing for her faded youth are Gertrude's lifeblood, and it's not long before her drunken ways, scheming nature, and paralytic self-absorption lead her to alienate (and financially cripple) Howard, demean just about everyone and destroy their possessions, and make plans to subjugate (and, it's implied, seduce) the employment-seeking young man named Tom Underwood (Sean Lyons) who's suddenly appeared on Mamie's doorstep.

Certainly such a tortured and torturing figure is full of juice to extract, and Buckley makes a serious go of it. She shimmers most alluringly in the post-intermission scene set in Gertrude's bedchamber (like the rest of the sets, the downscale, ethereally disconnected work of designer Jeff Cowie), when she bears her claws most forcefully toward Howard and Sybill but does so with a thin angular smile on her lips, and has a bit more trouble convincing the fiercely uncontrollable scorned woman who's determined to take what's hers (or what she believes is hers) by any means necessary. But you're always aware that Buckley is aware that Gertrude is Amanda Wingfield, Blanche DuBois, and Maggie Pollitt all rolled into one. (Want to add Summer and Smoke's Alma Winemiller and Suddenly, Last Summer's Violet Venable into the mix? I won't argue much.)

Therein lies the ultimate problem. A steely, suffocating Williams anti-heroine does not easily occupy the same universe as Foote's subdued countryfolk. The types are diametrically opposed visions of Southern "gentility," an in effect seem to cancel each other out. Whereas Williams occasionally dabbled in dastardly figures or employed suggestive shadows that made many individuals look oddly dark, Foote's art has always been subtler. His best villains are those who are, at their heart, ordinary people such as the daughter Jessie in The Trip to Bountiful and there's nary a trace of genuine evil in her. Gertrude feels like a refugee masquerading as a local, but who doesn't understand the customs or the speech well enough to truly blend in. If you can't accept that this callous woman could disappear into society well enough to disrupt it from the inside out, you can't accept the play.

More damaging is that Foote was writing severely out of his element here. If Williams wrote of the Deep South melting in the sunlight of modernity, most of Foote's output (and all of his best writings), intentionally or otherwise, capture the disintegrating Texas over many decades, as witnessed through the eyes of the families that were the building blocks left behind. But the state does not seem like a character here, and its dry heat and expansive emptiness don't parch the souls of the characters who wander its wastes. You don't experience the despondency of now, so it seems as though nothing was lost and if nothing was lost, what drives these characters? Foote's lack of a satisfactory answer ensured that he didn't provide a satisfactory play.

Director Michael Wilson, who's helmed many Foote plays in recent years (including the current Trip to Bountiful and the epic trilogy The Orphans' Home Cycle), hasn't resolved the contradictions himself, which has unleashed a loose and tired atmosphere on the proceedings that do nothing to highlight the romances or tragedies in the work that, in more adventurous hands, could probably be at least moderately compelling. (I'm not sure the burgeoning union between Sybil and Howard would ever really surge given its piecemeal construction, however.)

The only thing about the production that screams authenticity is Hallie Foote's performance and Sybil. The playwright's daughter has become one of the foremost interpreters of his work, and seeing her here it's not difficult to understand why. She carries herself with a passionate stolidity that simultaneously urges you closer and pushes you away; it's a reserved energy that commands care and secrecy, but is energetic nonetheless in the way it instantly reveals the inner being of an incredibly private woman.

Sybil feels real pain in the aftermath of Hugo's death, an agony that's only compounded by the treatment she receives upon trying to reintegrate herself into the Harrison fold. Hallie communicates every nuance of this, and draws the vital connections between Sybil, the community she's trying to re-enter, and the land that defines them all. She is a perfect example of a Foote character, and perfectly rendered to summon a time and a place that no one but Foote could identify. For all her paint-peeling venom, Gertrude belongs somewhere she may better deploy her unruly terrors.

Harrison is, or at least should be, far too real for her. As a result, Gertrude is emblematic of why The Old Friends never feels real enough.


The Old Friends
Irene Diamond Stage at The Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street between 9th and 10th Avenues
Through September 15
Running Time: 2 hours 20 minutes with one intermission
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: www.signaturetheatre.org