Tuesday, October 22, 2013

The Old Friends

"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?).

Nonetheless, 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). 

Sybil's 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.

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