America’s Chekhov Still Juicy; Sondheim’s Roadshow Blows a Flat

heilpern2 America’s Chekhov Still Juicy; Sondheim’s Roadshow Blows a FlatHorton Foote’s Dividing the Estate, which has made a very welcome transfer to the Booth Theatre on Broadway, couldn’t be timelier.

Mr. Foote’s gentle, comic parable about self-interest and desperation over the fate of a family estate in the playwright’s imagined small town of Harrison, Texas, first premiered at Princeton’s McCarter Theatre in 1989. With the rising anxiety about our economic future, the celebrated play and its genteelly feuding Southern characters have become more poignant. But only the prescient Mr. Foote, who ranks among America’s greatest playwrights, would make his point so charmingly in the unobtrusive manner of Chekhov.

 

 

Horton Foote’s Dividing the Estate, which has made a very welcome transfer to the Booth Theatre on Broadway, couldn’t be timelier.

Mr. Foote’s gentle, comic parable about self-interest and desperation over the fate of a family estate in the playwright’s imagined small town of Harrison, Texas, first premiered at Princeton’s McCarter Theatre in 1989. With the rising anxiety about our economic future, the celebrated play and its genteelly feuding Southern characters have become more poignant. But only the prescient Mr. Foote, who ranks among America’s greatest playwrights, would make his point so charmingly in the unobtrusive manner of Chekhov.

 

THE 92-YEAR-OLD Horton Foote disproves the generalization that the skills of successful playwrights are at their juiciest in youth. To the contrary, the signs are that Mr. Foote’s energy and talent are unflagging. His Pulitzer Prize for Drama came in 1995 with The Young Man From Atlanta; his earlier Academy Awards were for the screenplays of To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) and Tender Mercies (1983).

His plays of Southern life and grace consciously avoid Tennessee Williams’ declamatory poetry. Mr. Foote’s writing is characterized by an unmodish sense of compassion and emotional restraint, and his language is everyday. The quietly unfolding Dividing the Estate makes Tracy Letts’ August: Osage County seem an even coarser melodrama of dysfunctional family life. Not to say that Mr. Foote’s characters don’t have their hysterical moments, but we often intuit their emotions by what remains unsaid.

Reading the script of Dividing the Estate, you find (most unusually) almost no stage direction and no character description whatsoever. Yet we immediately recognize these trapped, self-deluding folk with their shared memories, family gossip and honeyed grievances.

They’re uncannily like us—though they happen to be land-rich, cash-poor Texans. Only in his characters’ appetite for gothic humor in the midst of apparently irrelevant reminiscence is Mr. Foote most typically a Southern writer. The ailing family matriarch, Stella (Elizabeth Ashley, having a ball—possibly too much of one), is a Big Mama in her own courtly fashion, obdurately refusing to divide the estate among her needy, greedy family. Two minutes into the play, she eccentrically confuses the tragic death of Cousin Gert Stewart’s daughter’s husband with a former son-in-law. The news that the poor man blew his brains out on his wedding night comes as fairly routine information.

“Yes,” says Stella’s middle-aged daughter Lucille. “He was cleaning his gun, and he was laughing, and he said, ‘If I didn’t think you loved me, I’d kill myself.’ And the gun accidentally went off and she ran to him screaming, and held him and blood was running all over her wedding gown—you remember, that wedding gown had been in Gert’s family for generations. Her great-great-grandmother had brought it with her from Virginia.”

“What was he doing cleaning his gun on his wedding night?” asks Stella.

“No one knows, Mama,” Lucille answers demurely. “That is just one of those great mysteries. …”

The story of how the doddering old black servant Doug (played by the always excellent Arthur French) came to work for Stella is first told as potential farce, then as tragedy.

“When I was 5 years old,” he reminisces to Stella at the start, “your papa brought my mama in from the farm after my daddy was killed by one of the bulls, and she cooked for you all.”

“Henrietta?”

“Yessum. I remember the day you was born and the day you got married, and the day your husband, Mr. Charles, died.”

“Charlie wasn’t my husband, Doug. He was Lucille’s husband—Raymond was my husband.”

“Yessum, that’s how it was,” says Doug, drifting off some place. “I remember all of it.”

The past—even if shakily remembered—is central to a play in which the fearsome matriarch clings romantically to the unspoiled, undeveloped land of a mythical old South. (She overlooks the broken backs that once farmed it for her. But Mr. Foote is too wryly generous a writer for class resentment.) The comic pathos of Dividing the Estate comes with the battle of the impoverished, feckless members of the family to carve up the land for their share in hoped-for millions. Or as Stella’s steely daughter Mary Jo puts it plainly, “I want everything—what about you?”

The big ensemble of Dividing the Estate is well directed by Michael Wilson, who captures the shifting mood and nuances of the play beautifully. Among a number of fine performances, Gerald McRaney is outstandingly good as the soused, ruined son Lewis, and James DeMarse’s bravado and pain as the bankrupt brother-in-law Bob could scarcely ring more true.

But perhaps the evening finally belongs to the pinched, entitled stridency of Hallie Foote (the playwright’s daughter) as the foiled Mary Jo, left hoping beyond hope, praying every night down on her knees, that oil is struck on the family estate.

 

STEPHEN SONDHEIM’S Road Show at the Public Theater is its fourth and darkest reincarnation since it was first staged 10 years ago as Wise Guys; the show has also been produced as Gold and Bounce. What’s in a name?