Theater Reviews

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Primary Stages, New York
Through Oct. 28

Greed never goes out of style, according to Horton Foote's drama "Dividing the Estate," now receiving a well-deserved New York premiere off-Broadway. Foote's play may have an old-fashioned sensibility, but its sense has a very contemporary ring.

Set in the fictional town of Harrison, Texas, in 1987, "Estate" involves a rich, aging matriarch named Stella (Elizabeth Ashley) and the family that, one way or another, wants her money. Stella's son Lewis (Gerald McRaney, CBS' "Jericho") drinks and gambles. Widowed daughter Lucille (Penny Fuller) lives in Mama's house on a kind of salary, and Lucille's widower son -- humorously named Son (Devon Abner) -- receives a pitiful monthly sum to manage the estate. Mama's other daughter, Mary Jo (Hallie Foote), lives beyond her means in Houston with her bankrupt husband (James DeMarse) and two spoiled daughters (Jenny Dare Paulin, Nicole Lowrance). If most of these characters had their wishes, Mama would just give them her money and let them get on with it.

Foote often is compared to Chekhov, perhaps because those doing the comparing do not really know Chekhov. In this case, a more apt analogy would be to Lillian Hellman and her 1939 drama "The Little Foxes." In "Estate," as in "Foxes," a controlling woman sits at the center of her family like a spider in a web, while everyone either crawls to her or flails impotently.

But Foote, who wrote "Estate" in the 1980s, has a lighter touch than Hellman. Once Foote gets past his exposition, "Estate" contains considerable humor, which director Michael Wilson skillfully elicits during the two-hours-plus production. As the family gathers in Mama's formal but run-down living room, comically extreme selfishness and manipulation just pop up everywhere. Then, in an ironic ending best described as "be careful what you wish for," Mama and her estate get the last word.

Ashley ("Enchanted April") always has possessed sharp comic timing, and Mama's cutting remarks glide from her like silk. But she does not quite grasp this subtly malicious 85-year-old dowager. The rest of the ensemble is better at capturing both the humor and the churlish or pathetic underpinnings of Foote's characters.

But the victor here is the artful play, which reminds us -- in case we should need the prompting -- that greed has always been part of the American character and is likely to remain so.

DIVIDING THE ESTATE
Primary Stages at 59E59 Theaters
Credits:
Playwright: Horton Foote
Director: Michael Wilson
Set designer: Jeff Cowie
Costume designer: David C. Woolard
Lighting designer: Rui Rita
Original music, sound designer: John Gromada
Wig designer: Paul Huntley
Cast:
Son: Devon Abner
Stella: Elizabeth Ashley
Lucille: Penny Fuller
Mildred: Linda Gravatt
Doug: Arthur French
Lewis: Gerald McRaney
Cathleen: Keiana Richard
Pauline: Maggie Lacey
Mary Jo: Hallie Foote
Emily: Jenny Dare Paulin
Sissie: Nicole Lowrance
Bob: James DeMarse
Irene: Virginia Kull
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