The Old Friends: Theater Review

The Old Friends - H 2013
Joan Marcus
The Signature Theatre delivers a beautifully staged and acted production of the late Horton Foote's problematic play.

Playwright Horton Foote's Southern-drenched melodrama receives a posthumous, world premiere production.

Receiving its world premiere four years after the playwright’s death, Horton Foote’s The Old Friends is receiving a sterling production by the Signature Theatre Company that would surely have pleased the author of such classics as The Trip to Bountiful and The Orphans’ Home Cycle. This fascinating, if problematic, work -- originally written in the 1960s and which has been seen only in readings since -- displays the playwright’s trademark themes while lurching into more voluble and melodramatic territory than his usually more genteel efforts.

Set in 1965 in Hoote’s usual fictional setting of the small town of Harrison, Texas, it concerns the charged interactions among several family members and friends over issues of love and money. These include family matriarch Mamie (Lois Smith), who lives with her unhappily married daughter Julia (Veanne Cox) and her wealthy alcoholic husband, Albert (Adam LeFevre); Julia’s recently widowed, destitute sister Sybil (Hallie Foote, the playwright’s daughter); and family friend Gertrude (Betty Buckley), a wealthy lush who desperately pines for her business manager Howard (Cotter Smith), the brother of her late husband.

Sybil’s sudden arrival, and the feelings it stirs up in Howard, who has been in love with her for many years, stirs up a hornet’s nest of emotional conflagrations, including Julia’s attempts to seduce Gertrude’s hunky new employee Tom (Sean Lyons) and Gertrude’s desperate efforts to make Howard the new man in her life despite his plans to become independent and work his own farm.

The play reveals its troubled gestation, and the absence of its author, in its clunky structure -- the heavily exposition-laden first act is particularly deadly -- and its Tennessee Williams-style melodrama. But while it’s a far darker work than usual for the playwright, it does display his ability to craft compelling dialogue and memorably colorful characters.

It certainly couldn’t have received a more effective production than it does here, courtesy of director Michael Wilson, who’s made a specialty of the playwright’s works (including the recent Tony-nominated revival of The Trip to Bountiful) and a brilliant cast.

Buckley is the undeniable standout as the volcanic Gertrude, whose pathetic neediness is vividly demonstrated by her alcohol-fueled rages. But the rest of the talented ensemble is equally fine, especially Foote, a veteran performer of her father’s work, who is deeply moving as the quietly dignified and unexpectedly strong-willed Sybil, and the always wonderful Smith, whose venerable career includes an early film appearance opposite James Dean in East of Eden.

Director Wilson handles the play’s emotional twists and turns in typically expert fashion, staging even its more over-the-top scenes with a steady hand. And the production looks terrific, thanks to Jeff Cowie’s detailed sets depicting the lavish, old-fashioned Southern interiors -- Gertrude’s extravagantly florid bedroom is a marvel to behold -- and David C. Woolard’s pitch-perfect period costumes.

The playwright had a long association with the theater company, which has produced many of his works. So it’s not surprising that this posthumous production of one of his more flawed efforts is being presented in such an obviously loving fashion.     

Venue: The Pershing Square Signature Center, New York (runs through Oct. 6)
Cast: Betty Buckley, Veanne Cox, Hallie Foote, Adam LeFevre, Sean Lyons, Novella Nelson, Melle Powers, Cotter Smith, Lois Smith
Director: Michael Wilson
Playwright: Horton Foote
Scenic designer: Jeff Cowie
Costume designer: David C. Woolard
Lighting designer: Rui Rita
Original music and sound designer: John Gromada
Presented by the Signature Theatre