Theater Reviews

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Booth Theatre, New York (Runs indefinitely)

Elizabeth Ashley has always been an actress who commands the stage, and after nearly a half century of treading the boards, she remains as formidable a presence as ever.

As such, she remains the chief reason to sit through the meandering dialogue that defines "Dividing the Estate," Horton Foote's latest exploration of a Southern family in crisis. Cast as the octogenarian matriarch that rules the roost with an iron cane, Ashley's vitality -- coupled with an ability to enliven each line -- defies one's mind to wander.

When she's not onstage, however, one's mind often becomes a frequent flier, this despite her co-stars' best efforts. That's because the dysfunctional clan routine has become a yawn-inducing staple, and nothing in this incarnation seems particularly fresh or intriguing.

Set in 1987, members of the Gordon family are readying for battle at a much-anticipated dinner gathering. The cause of contention is summed up in the show's title: when and how to divvy up the ancestral Texas home and the vast acreage surrounding it.

Matriarch Stella (Ashley) is dead-set to keep the estate together, a course of action supported by Stella's living-at-home daughter, Lucille (Penny Fuller), and Lucille's offspring Son (Devon Abner), who manages the property's books. Lucille's spendthrift siblings Lewis (Gerald McRaney) and Mary Jo (Hallie Foote) feel differently, along with Mary Jo's greedy husband (James DeMarse) and grown daughters (Nicole Lowrance, Jenny Dare Paulin). In addition, the servants (Pat Bowie, Arthur French, Keiana Richard) hope new marching orders will mean an infusion of bucks, while Lewis and Son's love interests (Virginia Kull, Maggie Lacey) also get sucked into the money-centric maelstrom.

What results is two hours-plus of nonstop squabbling and contention, with dollar signs being the motivating factor for almost every action that takes place. And once the grim reaper makes a house call, the self-centered principals go from bad to worse.

Unfortunately, Foote's script follows suit. Too many scenes prove redundant, poorly structured and desultory, with what passes for action arbitrarily jumping from one pack of vipers to another, then back again. Even the most patient playgoers will throw up their hands as all builds into a toothless, plodding variation on "The Little Foxes."

Surprisingly, director Michael Wilson does little to offset the languid pacing or smooth over bumpy segues from drama to comedy. Since he also helmed the production during its off-Broadway run last year, such stumbling blocks should have been easy fixes. Apparently not.

Each member of the earlier production's 13-member cast also signed on for Round 2, which might explain why the actors emerge as the show's strength. The sole exception is Hallie Foote, who's shrill and over the top despite considerable acting experience in her father's vehicles. The others function like a well-oiled machine, with Ashley always -- and aptly -- dominating. TV icon McRaney and Broadway veterans Fuller and French sometimes threaten to steal the spotlight, however.

Sadly, fine performances can't get around the disappointing writing. Granted, no one expects the playwright to keep penning works on the level of "The Trip to Bountiful." But that's no excuse for his "Estate" to be lacking in resonance, heart and value.

Cast: Elizabeth Ashley, Gerald McRaney, Penny Fuller, Hallie Foote, Devon Abner, Pat Bowie, James DeMarse, Arthur French, Virginia Kull, Maggie Lacey, Nicole Lowrance, Jenny Dare Paulin, Keiana Richard.
Playwright: Horton Foote.
Director: Michael Wilson.
Scenic designer: Jeff Cowie.
Costume designer: David C. Woolard.
Lighting designer: Rui Rita.
Original music/sound designer: John Gromada.

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