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Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Hallie Foote and Tim Hopper.
Photo by James Leynse.

Melancholy clearly runs in the Foote family. If you've followed the work of the late Horton—and if you've been following the Off-Broadway scene over the last decade or so, you have been—you're aware of his masterful marshaling of it in chronicling vanishing Old Texas. His characters, however, were traditionally innocents swept away by a rapidly spinning society, forced to cope with changes they didn't understand and didn't want. On the other hand, his daughter Daisy unlocks much of the same kind of desolate dissatisfaction in exploring characters from another time and place in Him, which just opened at Primary Stages. Only here we're seeing the creation of new victors rather than new victims.

Well, sort of. It's definitely one of the themes of the play, which has been thoughtfully directed by Evan Yionoulis, that those who have been taken from these days grow up wanting to become the takers rather than merely pining for what they can no longer have. America has changed irrevocably since the early 20th century that Horton chronicled and the early 21st that Daisy examines, and during that time it's become almost impossible to tell who the good and the bad guys are. In fact, when you focus on just one single family, their blood connections make the terms "good" and "bad" lose their meaning entirely.

Daisy's having inherited her father's appreciation of emotional questions and complexities is evident merely from considering the play's setup. Brother and sister Henry and Pauline, both now in their 40s and 50s, have put their lives on hold to care for three things: their father, who's been incapacitated by a stroke; the failing convenience store he owned in their hometown of Tremont, New Hampshire; and their brother, Farley, who's about their age but too "slow" to take care of himself. Both resent dad and the near-poverty his slave-like devotion to the store has thrust upon them; and beyond that, the business-minded Pauline has concluded that, unless something changes, they're at most a few months away from losing everything.

Of course, something does change, and promises to put real money in their hands for the first time ever. Naturally, this comes with its own cost: The impending windfall sends Henry and Pauline on a spending spree, and leads them to discover a box of their father's old journals that suggest he was once a very different man than the one they thought they knew. And his connection to a certain piece of land he acquired long ago, and that could be the key to the family's new riches, opens up new rifts between the siblings that threaten to rip apart what's left of the bonds holding them all together.

What Daisy gets unquestionably right are the tiny details that add up to moments of big significance later on. Henry's being gay and addicted to pills, for example, or Pauline's having forsaken raising children so she could fulfill a different set of obligations, come to full boil and have devastating consequences of their own. These are desperate, at-odds people, and the writing never shies from depicting them as being on the brink of utter insolvency on every level of their being. This is strengthened by the pointed, and frequently caustic, ways the siblings deal with each other: The years they've spent trapped together have worn them down, and they've long since lost the sense of what the outside world really is.

Considerably less satisfying is much of the specific plotting, which is often mechanical at best and predictable at worst. The collection of journals is a clunky device for shoehorning dad into a story that isn't rightfully his; using various characters reciting aloud passages from the journals, to underscore certain twists in the story, is especially awkward. Too much of the crucial balance between Henry and Pauline is lost in the second act, when Daisy seems to be taking sides in a painfully ham-handed way. Then there's Farley's falling for the 20-year-old developmentally disabled Louise next door, providing most of the (uncomfortable) comedy more pat, twee situations than any story this hard-edged truly requires.

Yionoulis has done a tremendous amount to downplay the obviousness inherent in all this, but he can't overcome the prodded nature of the writing. Daisy forces things to happen, rather than let them unfold on their own, which does not shake out well. This play, like most, would benefit from more nuance, not less, and its lack prevents the story from being as piercing or profound as it could be.

Much of what power there is comes from the performances. Adam LeFevre and Adina Verson are solid if unremarkable as Farley and Louise, never coming across as dishonest but also never transcending their roles' inherent limitations. On the other hand, Tim Hopper is outstanding as Henry, a flawlessly repressed milquetoast who makes both his own opportunities and his own failures. Hopper shows that Henry's hope is a moral one: a belief that good things can result from good actions, even as he demonstrates an uncertainty about what those actions should be. We see the tragic trap Henry is laying for himself, which Hopper presents with a bruised innocence that properly keeps us both involved and at a distance.

As for Pauline, she's portrayed by perhaps the finest of all Horton Foote interpreters: his other daughter, Hallie. She's every bit as good here as she was in her father's plays: sharp and unforgiving, yes, but also sympathetic and devoted in ways you might not expect. She shows that Pauline's love for those around her is palpable, as is her determination to not become lost to time the way her father did, and she negotiates the difficult (and, at times, too-rocky) transitions the character must make from reluctant caretaker to the woman in charge with a handsome, fraught aplomb.

Hallie provides the strongest link between the two playwriting Footes, and lends the evening an authenticity it would otherwise have trouble maintaining: Atmosphere is one thing and execution is another, and Daisy is not as expert with the latter as she is with the former. But with her sister, and by extension, her father on hand, you feel the full weight of history pulling against the people in Tremont just as it is the people onstage. That compensates for a great deal, even if it's not quite enough to make Him the slice of modern, disaffected Americana it so aspires to be.

Through October 28
59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street, between Park and Madison
Tickets and current schedule TicketCentral

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