Billed as a world première, the Signature Theatre Company’s production of Horton Foote’s The Old Friends, which opened in the Irene Diamond Stage at the Pershing Square Signature Center on Theatre Row on 12 September after starting previews on 20 August, is really a hold-over. (The production, which my friend Diana and I saw on Friday night, 27 September, is now scheduled to close on 20 October, extended twice from 29 September.) Foote, whose work has been seen often at STC, wrote an early version of the play called The Dispossessed in 1964 and it was workshopped at the HB Playwrights Foundation in 1982. The 1964 play was read by STC in 2002 and Foote, who died in 2009, began revisions, creating the current script, but The Old Friends was never produced fully until this presentation. (The Old Friends, the first presentation of STC’s 2013-14 season, replaces another announced production in STC’s Legacy series, Edward Albee’s Laying an Egg, which was previously scheduled and postponed in 2011-12. Signature says that the Albee play will be premièred in a later season.)
Foote was the fourth Playwright-in-Residence during Signature’s 1994-95 season and then the theater produced the world premiere of The Last of the Thorntons in 2000-01. A revival of The Trip to Bountiful (starring Lois Smith and Hallie Foote, both of this cast of The Old Friends) was presented in 2005-06 (see ROT 25 May 2013 for a report on this revival) and then in 2009 and 2010, Signature and Connecticut’s Hartford Stage co-produced the world première of the epic three-part saga, The Orphans’ Home Cycle (25 and 28 February 2010 on ROT). The current production is directed by Michael Wilson, the director of the recent revival of Bountiful on Broadway, Orphans’ Home at Signature (with Hallie Foote, the playwright’s daughter and frequent interpreter), as well as Foote’s The Carpetbagger's Children (2002) for Lincoln Center Theater, The Day Emily Married (2004) and Dividing the Estate (2007) for Primary Stages, and The Death of Papa (1999) for Hartford Stage, where Wilson was artistic director from 1998 to 2011.
As the playwright returns us to his familiar locale of Harrison, Texas, The Old Friends recounts the story, set in 1965, of Mamie Borden (Smith), the family matriarch who’s now dependent on her daughter’s grudging hospitality, and the remaining members of two farm families, including Mamie’s boozehound daughter, Julia Borden Price (Veanne Cox), and son-in-law, Albert Price (Adam LeFevre), the man Mamie had forced her to marry 20 years earlier, who are all awaiting the return of Mamie’s son, Hugo, and his wife, Sybil (Hallie Foote) after a decade roving Latin America as Hugo lucklessly tried his hand at wildcatting for oil. When Sybil arrives with the distressing news that Hugo died of a heart attack just as they got off the plane, old friends on opposite sides must confront the issues that have occupied them for generations. On hand to roil the turmoil are Gertrude Hayhurst Sylvester Ratliff (Betty Buckley), a rich, narcissistic lush; her brother-in-law Howard Ratliff (Cotter Smith), once engaged to Sybil; and Tom Underwood (Sean Lyons), the young stud both Julia and Gertrude openly lust after. The situation is complicated by money—who has it, who doesn’t, and what they can do with it—and control. In addition to wall-to-wall the drinking, name-calling, and lusting, there’s a little blackmail and (this being Texas, after all) some gunplay. Wilson calls The Old Friends “one of Horton’s more outrageous plays”—“outrageous” is a word the director uses a lot when talking about this work—and says the play’s title is “very ironic.” In Foote’s depiction, with old friends like these, you hardly need enemies.
The Old Friends is a sequel of sorts to Foote’s second full-length (and first Broadway) play, Only the Heart, which played the Bijou Theatre in 1944. The earlier play told the story of Julia’s wedding to Albert Price and domineering Mamie’s essentially orchestrating the marriage, 20 years before the events of The Old Friends. Not yet staged in New York City, 1955’s The Beginning of Summer, produced in 2005 by the Quotidian Theatre Company in Bethesda, Maryland, contains some of the same characters as the other two plays, revisiting the Price marriage (and Mamie’s continued meddling) ten years on when the decay has begun to set in. Clearly Foote felt a bit toward the Borden and Price clans as Tennessee Williams did toward Alma Winemiller whom he put into two plays and several stories.
My rule of thumb is that if a play is old and “neglected,” there's usually a good reason: it's bad. That doesn't apply here—and it's a curiosity why The Old Friends took so long to get to a stage—almost 50 years after Foote wrote the first version and even 11 since he reworked it after the reading at Signature (which prompted him to revise it into the script I saw); it's even four years since the playwright died. Diana suggested that the play’s late arrival on the boards is because it’s not “politically correct,” treating a certain kind of rich, white Texan harshly and unsentimentally, but I doubted that was a factor even in 1964, much less in 1982 or 2002—certainly New York producers and theaters don’t owe any consideration to Texas society or its self-mage. It turns out, according to Michael Wilson, that the delay is due to present-day theater economics: written in an earlier era, the play has a cast of nine, including two very small parts, and three complete interiors. Wilson recounts that after Foote made the final revisions, the director and the playwright “had a number of different theatres, both regionally and in New York, interested,” but staging “a play of a certain size” wasn’t easy.
The play, in fact, is very good—Diana declared it the best Horton Foote play she’s seen (though I still think Bountiful is better)—a fascinating look at the dramatist’s view of a certain segment of (Texas) society, which he scrutinizes with particular mercilessness. It’s also a glimpse at an early part of Foote's work, a glance at where he started his dramatic journey—especially through his memories of life in Harrison, the stand-in for his actual hometown of Wharton. (Harrison, Texas, figures in many of Foote’s plays; it’s the main setting, over a 25-year span at the beginning of the 20th century, for the nine-play family epic, The Orphans’ Home Cycle.)
Okay, it’s a soap opera—and I generally can’t stand soaps—but it’s a wonderful one. (At two hours and five minutes—there’s a 15-minute intermission in addition—it’d make a terrific TV movie, probably on ABC or Lifetime. In any case, as Diana observed, it didn’t feel like a two-hour-and-twenty-minute performance.) My problem, which Diana dismissed, is that half the characters are nasty people whom I didn’t enjoy spending time with if I hadn’t had to. The nice folks—Mamie, Sybil, and Howard—are overwhelmed on stage (and in life, too, I’d imagine) by the more boisterous and unpleasant ones, even though they are the heart (in more than one sense) of the play. It’s the nasty people who drive the story, however, and, as Diana observed, the ending is somewhat inconclusive in that we can’t really say what will become of any of the characters. (Having written two previous plays about the same people, maybe Foote planned to write more before bringing this family saga to a conclusion.) Still, there are hints that Sybil and Howard will carve out a life together: she’s wrested a house (in which she’d grown up, by the way) from her landlord, Julia, and he’s quit his position as Gertrude’s estate manager and plans to buy a farm he can work for himself. Mamie, who’s pretty old, is certainly going to die before too long, but she got to move out of her daughter’s house and away from Albert, who hates her for no apparent reason (it may be in one of the earlier plays in which Mamie’s a bossy, controlling tyrant), and is living in comfort and welcome with Sybil where she says she’s happy. As I said, I like Bountiful much better—the ending is bittersweet but conclusive and apt—but I like The Old Friends better than I did The Young Man from Atlanta (1997), Foote’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Broadway play.
Foote started as a playwright in 1940 and though The Old Friends dates from ’64, it’s still a relatively early effort. Foote never really experimented with structure, so even his later work was traditionally conceived, and The Old Friends isn’t so much a throw-back as a step along the writer’s steady path toward 2007’s Dividing the Estate, his last play. The one hint that The Old Friends is still the work of an emerging playwright is the characters’ tendency to let forth with long speeches about their histories and dreams. It’s blatant exposition, and the monologues aren’t especially cleverly inserted into the performance text, though they’re all well executed in Wilson’s production. On the other hand, however, Foote’s work is seldom so predictable that you know from one scene or act to the next what’s going to happen, and that’s already true of The Old Friends. Audiences may be able to guess at the arc of the story, but the moment-to-moment fates of the characters isn’t obviously foreshadowed—which is why Diana felt that the end doesn’t predict what becomes of the characters afterward. (Wilson feels that in his final revisions, playwright Foote “chose to make things less resolved.” Earlier versions “tended to answer more questions and spell it out more for the audience,” asserts the director, but in the end, the writer “left it up to the audience’s imagination as to what happened to these characters.”) Though Foote contrives Sybil and Howard to be perfect matches for one another, for example, it’s not inevitable that they’ll connect—and even when they do, in the middle of act two, it’s not at all certain they’ll manage to make it happen.
It might be seen as a contrivance, but I rather liked the fact that Sybil and Howard, with Mamie’s complicity, do extricate themselves from the hell of their families not because of anything that the gorgons do, but in spite of everything they do. The two essentially say, ‘Fuck it, we’re not going to play this game anymore!’ and just split. Furthermore, they don’t flee Harrison, though Gertrude tries to assure that at least Sybil does—that would have been the easy solution—they defy everyone and stay put because that’s what the two of them want and damn if anyone’s going to make them do otherwise.
The Harrison, Texas, of The Old Friends is not the same town of Orphans’ Home. In addition to being more than three to six decades younger, the Harrison of Orphans’ is a starting place, a cocoon from which the character representing Foote’s father emerges as the man he became. It was also the place that united the relatives and friends that surrounded and nurtured Foote’s family. In The Old Friends, Harrison is a trap, a cage, holding onto the characters who no longer have connections either to the town and its land or to one another. As director Wilson warns, “This is not your grandmother’s Horton Foote.” Hallie Foote observes that in towns like Wharton, her father’s real hometown, such behavior went on a lot. (Buckley’s also from Texas—Big Spring, but raised in Fort Worth —and knew people like the inhabitants of Harrison, on a composite of several of whom she says she based Gertrude.) The three middle-aged women all lost chances to marry men they loved and ended up marrying ones who disappointed them, and Hallie Foote concludes, “Underneath, there’s such loneliness.” Buckley says the play’s “really about human longing,” and the drinking, the sex, and the anger come as a response to that feeling of being trapped and alone. It’s why Mamie, Sybil, and Howard don’t “medicate themselves through alcohol and sex,” in Wilson’s phrase: they aren’t trapped and they aren’t alone. Diana found the play Ibsenesque, with the past coming back and bearing on the present as in Ghosts and Doll House, but Ben Brantley thinks it has “characteristic traces of Foote’s beloved Chekhov,” especially in the penultimate scene the Timesman sees as reminiscent of Uncle Vanya. On the other hand, The Old Friends shares elements with works by Tennessee Williams, who was a friendly rival of Foote’s in the ’40s, particularly in the female characters and the hard-core drinking. As Wall Street Journal reviewer Terry Teachout asserts, The Old Friends “has at least as much in common with ‘Uncle Vanya’ as it does with ‘Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.’” Director Wilson adds, “I think Horton is asking what it means to be a friend, what loyalties we have and responsibilities we have . . .,” and that’s what I saw on stage.
Wilson’s production is spot-on. (He’s had enough practice with Foote’s world, hasn’t he?) First off, he’s cast the play perfectly, I’d say. Signature nearly always gets good actors and directors, and this is proof of the pudding. (Diana had some quibbles about having Hallie Foote play Sybil, which I’ll try to explicate, but I don’t agree.) To start with, as I reported a few years ago, “I don’t think [Lois] Smith can deliver anything less than a credible and warm performance . . . .” Putting her in the company assures a living heartbeat at its center, and she embodies Mamie just as thoroughly as she did Carrie Watts in Bountiful. Having Hallie Foote in the cast, too, lends a sense of authority to the production, as if her presence on stage also assures that Horton Foote is somehow present as well. It’s not that she’s her father’s look-out (though she reportedly served as a resource for the company of Orphans’ Home after the playwright’s death) or a kind of phantom dramaturg, but she’s part of the world from which Horton Foote arose and about which he wrote, a living connection to the Harrison, Texas, of his mind. I’ll report on each of the cast members in a bit, but all of them depict the figures in Foote’s small-town Texas universe, as envisioned by Wilson, totally and believably.
Then, taking his cast along (and, I assume, feeding off of them as well), the director creates an environment in which these characters exist inherently. As outrageously as some of the characters behave in The Old Friends—and Julia and Gertrude can really get out there—not one actor steps out of the universe Foote and Wilson made for them. In another play or production, the actors might seem to be behaving unrealistically and exaggeratedly, but here it all seems . . . well, not necessarily natural, but fitting. Creating a stage world alien to that of the audience—and even if The Old Friends weren’t set in 1965 Texas, it would still be foreign to most of us—is not an easy task and Wilson and his company have pulled it off beautifully. (This is not such a surprise, really. Wilson and his Orhpans’ cast created such a detailed universe it was like living inside a diorama for three hours at a stretch.)
Jeff Cowie’s scenic design, depending on fragmentary Realism for the several rooms of the Prices, Ratliffs, and Bordens, set not only the period atmosphere, but the social and financial status and personality of the places’ owners and inhabitants. The Prices’ living room of the first scene is mid-century modern but without much warmth or humanity. (It’s no wonder Mamie doesn’t feel at home there—she had plenty of both.) The colors Cowie selected are cold—greens mostly (the color of money?). Gertrude’s over-decorated boudoir (French madam, anyone?) is pretentious and ostentatious, with immense drapes and piss-elegant lampshades (kept dark much of the scene, against her hangover and, one suspects, too much visibility). Her colors are creams and elaborate patterns from an interior decorator’s catalogue. There’s a severe and Spartan waiting room outside the door where Sybil and Howard cool their heels before being summoned to attend her highness. In Sybil and Mamie’s house, rented from Julia but furnished by the two tenants, there’s a feeling of homely comfort with some private touches (Sybil’s beloved books and Mamie’s vases, all she has that’s her own) covering over the wallpaper and décor installed by Julia (and which Mamie explains Sybil wants to redo even before she owns the house). The colors are browns and tans, with throw pillows on the slightly threadbare sofa. It’s destined to be a home, not just a residence or a showplace for expensive accouterments. David C. Woolard’s costumes work in the same vein—Elisabeth Vincentelli calls them “impeccable” in the New York Post—with Gertrude looking like an overstuffed Loretta Young (in her TV persona, not the movies) and Julia a gaudy, rainbow-colored barfly. (When I was in high school, a schoolmate was the son of a member of a famous family, his father the governor of a state. His mother was partial to gold lamé and Julia’s attire reminds me of her.) In the New York Times, Ben Brantley suggests the women of Harrison must have bought out Nieman Marcus’s designer collection in 1965! This is all lit atmospherically by Rui Rita, giving the appropriate ambiance to each setting to enhance what Cowie created for each abode.
The performances, as I’ve remarked, were uniformly excellent. Starting with Lois Smith’s portrait of marginalized old age in which the actress inhabits Mamie Borden as if she put on a pair of old slippers. (Aside from The Old Friends and Signature’s Bountiful revival, Smith has appeared in three other Foote plays: The Man Who Climbed the Pecan Trees and The Land of the Astronauts, both 1988 at New York’s Ensemble Studio Theatre; and Dividing the Estate, 2009 at Hartford Stage.) This is no caricature of old-womanhood, no stereotype—Smith, as in any role I’ve seen her play, creates a wonderfully alive human being, however put upon and shoved aside she may be. Like Carrie Watts in Bountiful, she pushes back (and, like Carrie, escapes) and Smith becomes the anchor in a top-notch cast. In a way, she’s the calm in the center of a talent storm: I got the sense that if not for Smith’s solid presence, Cox and Buckley might fly off the stage by centrifugal force. Mamie isn’t the lead character in The Old Friends—in fact, there isn’t one: this is a true ensemble play—but it’s the nature of Smith’s stage presence that I find myself always checking out what she’s up to even in a crowd scene—she draws the eye, even in calmness. And even when Mamie is agitated, as she is in the play’s opening scene while she’s anxiously waiting for her son and daughter, Smith exudes a calmness, not of obliviousness, a convenient trap when playing some kinds of old characters like Mamie, but of strong, even stubborn determination. (Smith herself is over 80 and Mamie, we learn, is old enough to be a great grandmother.) Smith’s Mamie may walk with an old-lady shuffle, she may speak in a high-pitched squeak and occasionally stammer, but make no mistake: this lady is in control of her mind and her will, if nothing else.
It would be fruitless to try to enumerate the Horton Foote plays in which Hallie Foote’s appeared in her career. Just since she was at Signature as a version of her own grandmother in Orphans’, Hallie Foote has done Dividing the Estate on Broadway (where she received a Tony nomination) and in regional productions around the country and Harrison, TX at Primary Stages (2012), and helped produce the Broadway revival of Bountiful. She’s also acted in Him, a play by her sister, Daisy, which premèred at Primary Stages in 2012. You can be sure Hallie Foote, to borrow a phrase from The Music Man, knows the territory. Now, Diana complained that Foote’s performance as Sybil is “flat and wooden”—she even said it’s “sullen”—so that my companion didn’t feel the actress gives the audience any sense of the prior relationship with Howard on which the characters’ current situation is founded. Diana thought there ought to have been more, but I don’t agree: another actress might well do a different but equally good interpretation of Horton Foote’s middle-aged matron, but no one will be truer or fuller. As New York Times review-writer Brantley wrote of Hallie Foote in a production of another Horton Foote play, “[S]he has what feels like a genetically ingrained understanding of her father’s creations,” and Joe Dziemianowicz described her performance in the Daily News as “completely honest,” which nails it for me. I felt her Sybil was quiet, but independent and intestinally strong. She seems mousy at first blush, apparently cowed by Gertrude and then Julia who both bluster into the Price living room from a party across the street and entirely ignore the fact that Sybil has just been widowed in the last few hours—even though the deceased is Julia’s brother and Mamie’s son as well as Sybil’s husband—and just bulldoze their way into the scene. Sybil basically just lets this happen, and I began to suspect that the play was going to be about how the two drunken women and Albert were going to strangle Sybil, Mamie, and Howard until there’s no spark left in them. Horton Foote, of course, wouldn’t write that play, I realize, and when Mamie escapes and Howard quits, it only remains for Sybil, who simply refuses to engage with the three lost souls, to get free, too. Foote, whose stage rep includes roles described as “snippy,” a “schoolmarmish scold,” and “sharp-tongued,” finally gets what she wants and leaves the lonely drunks to their own misery with stoic intensity, almost surreptitiously.
Betty Buckley’s Gertrude, a role she also played in the 2002 STC reading that prompted this mounting (and which also featured Hallie Foote), is like nothing else I’ve seen her do, a boozy, loud, vulgar nouveau-riche bitch who throws her money and her weight around to get whatever whim she wants. (For some reason, I’ve never seen Tender Mercies for which Horton Foote wrote the screenplay and in which Buckley played a drunken country singer, apparently a little like Gertrude in some respects. On the set of the 1983 film, the actress and the writer became friends and Buckley was adopted into Foote’s “honorary ‘extended family.’”) It is the flashiest role in The Old Friends (though Julia Price comes in a close second.) Completely narcissistic, Gertrude doesn’t even know when she’s been bested and Buckley creates an unlikeable character (as Foote wrote her, of course), but she’s also outrageous and over the top. Her Gertrude isn’t a comic drunk, but a nasty, bitter woman who needs to control everyone in her orbit. If Gertrude is almost too consistent to be entirely believable—how does someone as unbridled as that even survive?—Buckley attacks the role with complete conviction. Buckley doesn’t make Gertrude sympathetic, to the actress’s credit (the News’s Dziemianowicz says she almost does, but I say the actress makes the character pathetic, not sympathetic), and in the end, Gertrude’s unredeemed.
Both Gertrude and Julia end up right where they began, neither realizing that they’d been beaten by Howard and Sybil—narcissists don’t recognize defeat. As Julia, Veanne Cox (whom I don’t think I’ve ever seen on stage before), is equally selfish and grasping as Buckley’s Gertrude. Julia is tarter-tongued, perhaps, and she has a punching bag within easy reach in Albert whereas Gertrude has to flail about for targets of opportunity, but at heart—if they can even be said to have one—they’re a matched set, like a pair of cocked and loaded dueling pistols. Cox has harder edges and is more single-minded, which gives her Julia a flatter arc (Buckley’s Gertrude occasionally, and very briefly, behaves almost reasonably) and makes her seem less mercurial. I must add that the energy level both actresses must maintain is prodigious and I can’t imagine how they must feel after a two-performance day.
As Howard, Cotter Smith (whom I saw some years ago in the Atlantic Theater Company’s production of Dreams of Flying Dreams of Falling by Adam Rapp; see my report on ROT, 6 November 2011) portrays unshakable dignity, even in the face of apparent defeat by Gertrude when she refuses to sell Howard her share of the land he and his brother (Gertrude’s late husband) bought together so he can farm it for himself. In the beginning, it looks like he’s just another in a line of men Gertrude buys to serve her . . . ummm, needs, but I soon realized that Howard’s just a nice man who doesn’t want to hurt Gertrude as long as he can accommodate her politely and play her games. Smith becomes unabashedly fierce when he has to fight her for what he needs—and when Foote’s Sybil returns to his life and he has something (or someone) worth asserting himself for. If Foote’s Sybil acts stoically, Smith’s Howard is a banked fire.
Albert is nearly a match to the two women, but Adam LeFevre almost succeeded in making me feel sorry for him. (The feeling didn’t last.) LeFevre’s Albert is a bully with a temper and a broad streak of violence—he’s the one with the gun, by the way—and the actor’s bulk makes Albert seem even more menacing when he’s got a head of steam up. You don’t want to be in his way when this rhino charges! If Buckley makes Gertrude mercurial in her mood swings, going from banshee to Lady Macbeth from one moment to the next, LeFevre absolutely sublimes, shooting from virtually invisible to raging volcano at the drop of a provocation, and then having erupted, back to zero without an audible shift of gears.
Sean Lyons has less of a character to play, Tom Underwood being little more than a boy-toy for Gertrude and Julia to lust over, but he does it well enough. In Lyons hands, Tom doesn’t in the least mind being a sex object—as long as it gets him what he wants at the moment: first a job, then Howard’s job. He has no trouble flaunting both his private responsibilities and his vertical advancement or two-timing Gertrude and Julia even though it’s a provocation for Albert’s violent response. Except at the end when Tom’s life is actually in danger, Lyons doesn’t really display any emotional response to any part of the situation.
The press was generally in agreement, approving nearly unanimously of the production and varying only slightly in its estimation of the script. Dziemianowicz, for instance, dubs The Old Friends “louder, less gentle and more cartoonish than Foote’s best works” in the News, and calls it “entertaining but slow-starting.” Still, he reports that Wilson’s “starry cast” delivers “a vivid gallery of characters” that’s “firmly in the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer’s territory.” In the Post, declaring The Old Friends an example of “why Horton Foote plays keep getting produced over and over,” Elisabeth Vincentelli observes that the play “offers a different vibe for Foote fetishists” because “[s]everal scenes are uncharacteristically showy for” the playwright. (There were lots of puns like “Foote fetishist” in the reviews. Another writer called Wilson a “Foote soldier” and I myself stumbled into “Foote work,” though I revised the phrasing.) The “virtuoso ensemble,” the Postwoman writes, presents Foote’s characteristic “deceptively simple characters who turn out to be gifts to actors—and, by extension, audiences,” delivering “a master class in precision acting.” In his Times notice, Ben Brantley described the play as “a flashy soap opera about the filthy rich doing dirty by one another” with a “melodrama factor” that “can border dangerously, if enjoyably, on camp.” “[S]uavely directed” by Wilson, Brantley asserts however, the characters are “embodied by a juicy cast.” “‘The Old Friends’ is a high-strung drama of rich Texans and their poor relations,” writes Terry Teachout in the Wall Street Journal. “[T]hough its constituent parts don't always fit together neatly,” adds the Journalist, the play “is still a powerfully engrossing character study” with “a staggeringly good cast” that helps Wilson demonstrate his Foote expertise. Despite “a slowish, top-heavy start” and some speeches that “need a coat of authorial polish,” Teachout concludes, “You'll be swept up in the story almost before you know it.” Linda Winer of Long Island’s Newsday characterizes The Old Friends as a “major new play” whose posthumous première in an “impeccable production” is “a gift bearing lots of big juicy roles—especially for expert actresses.”
In New York magazine, Scott Brown calls the Signature show “a sizzling, spitting skillet of a production” and an “unapologetic potboiler, half-Chekhov, half-Dallas” because “nary a performance is short of deep-fried perfection.” The New Yorker’s “Goings On About Town” reports that in The Old Friends, the playwright “delivers many of the pleasures of his better-known works but takes his usual themes to a darker, and satisfying, place.” Michael Wilson, the magazine affirms, directs “with just the right touch for wry tragedy.” Brandon K. Thorp of the Village Voice characterizes Foote’s play as “campy,” though it comes by this trait “honestly,” asserts the Voice writer, who adds that “its incongruity . . . is sometimes delightful. But it’s weird.” Thorp also has the bleakest view of The Old Friends, writing, “The fun of The Old Friends has nothing to do with its characters’ tangled pasts and everything to do with seeing them as they are now, drinking till they're blind and raging till they collapse.”
In Variety, Marilyn Stasio reports that “once the awkward preliminaries are over and the cast hits its stride, we can relax and enjoy the endearing monsters that Foote has created.” That cast, Stasio declares, is “formidable,” but director Wilson “might have taken bolder measures to resolve” the built-in problem “of identifying the characters and accounting for their past and present relationships” which is overlong, though ultimately “strong characterization and thesping prevail.” Iris Greenberger of Show Business, calling The Old Friends “a beautifully written drama,” says that this “stellar production,” a “special treat” for theatergoers, is performed by “a top-notch ensemble.” The Hollywood Reporter’s Frank Scheck describes the Signature première as “a sterling production” of a “fascinating, if problematic, work” which “displays the playwright’s trademark themes while lurching into more voluble and melodramatic territory than his usually more genteel efforts.” This “far darker work than usual” for Foote “reveals its troubled gestation,” Scheck warns, “and the absence of its author, in its clunky structure,” but “couldn’t have received a more effective production” thanks to Wilson and his “brilliant cast.” David Cote of Time Out New York characterizes the play as a “problematic piece” that feels as if Foote were “channeling the influences of his contemporaries William Inge and Tennessee Williams.” “But,” warns the man from TONY, “the story elements rarely coalesce to satisfaction.” In one of the few negative assessments, Cote sums up by lamenting that “Michael Wilson keeps the uneven dramaturgy from flying too far off the rails, but even he can’t impose tonal sense on the jagged terrain” and asserting that the “well-acted and picturesque show, . . . at times, feels like it should be squeezed between ads for diapers and Palmolive.”
The cyber press mostly echoed its print sibling. In one of two Huffington Post notices, Wilborn Hampton calls the Signature première a “lively, gripping, and often funny production” under Michael Wilson’s “sharp direction” of “[a]n all-round excellent cast .” On the same site, Steven Suskin warns that “The Old Friends is not Foote at his best, dramaturgically speaking,” but affirms that the cast makes the production “a vodka-laced genteel slugfest” that’s “a gleeful slice of malevolence” with which STC has “happily favored us.” TheaterMania’s David Gordon opens his review by asserting, “The Old Friends doesn't look like a Horton Foote play” but rather “an Edward Albee play written by Tennessee Williams.” Director Wilson’s “production successfully navigates it all,” however, because a “game cast” brings it to life. In her CurtainUp review, Elyse Sommer observes that the characters of The Old Friends “are very different from the characters who usually people [Foote’s] Chekhovian landscape. They could easily be mistaken as kin to the greedy unhappy people in Tennessee Williams' Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.” But she adds that the play “is not copy-cat Williams.” The “enjoyable well-made play . . . is saved from going into over-the-top melodramatic territory,” asserts Sommer, “by Foote's sensitive writing, Wilson's fluid staging and a satisfyingly large cast's finely nuanced performances.” The on-line reviewer emphasizes that “it's a real treat to watch this cast inhabit their roles in this beautiful designed production.”
On Talkin’ Broadway, in the most adverse notice for The Old Friends, Matthew Murray asks, “What do you get when you cross Horton Foote and Tennessee Williams?” lamenting that “neither man gets off easy.” Murray’s chief objection, reiterated throughout his review, is that Buckley’s “steely, suffocating Williams anti-heroine does not easily occupy the same universe as Foote's subdued countryfolk.” The reviewer continues, “More damaging is that Foote was writing severely out of his element here” so that “[y]ou don't experience the despondency of now, so it seems as though nothing was lost—and if nothing was lost, what drives these characters?” Murray replies that “Foote's lack of a satisfactory answer ensured that he didn't provide a satisfactory play.” The cyber reviewer even declares that director Wilson “hasn't resolved the contradictions himself, which has unleashed a loose and tired atmosphere on the proceedings that do nothing to highlight the romances or tragedies in the work.” The only aspect of the production that Murray praises is Hallie Foote’s Sybil, who’s “a perfect example of a Foote character, and perfectly rendered to summon a time and a place that no one but Foote could identify.”
Review-writers have the right to their opinions, of course, but except for his remarks about Hallie Foote, who (despite my friend Diana’s criticism) captures Sybil with complete conviction and truthfulness, I can’t agree with Murray’s. It reads to me as if Murray is hung up on his image of a Horton Foote play and is disappointed that The Old Friends doesn’t meet his expectations. Of course, the play was written before Foote formed his ultimate style, so The Old Friends isn’t a defiance of that dramaturgy, but nevertheless, even if it had been, the writer has a perfect right to “a gradual ripening or development” while exploring new territory irrespective of “the exorbitant demands made by critics who don’t stop to consider the playwright’s need for . . a degree of tolerance and patience.” Now, who do you suppose wrote that plea in the face of the restrictive posture of literary and dramatic criticism? None other than Tennessee Williams himself, in fact. He was in mid-career (1951) when he felt constrained from taking new tacks in his work because reviewers insisted he stick with what he’d already done. He was responding to a New York Post column by Max Lerner in which the newspaperman wrote: “We Americans seem to demand a Number One Playwright just as the France of the great monarchs demanded a Number One Court Favorite. . . . But everyone seems grimly to set standards for the Number One Boy to fulfill.” Williams continued in his letter, “Painters have it better. They are allowed to evolve new methods, new styles . . . . They are not abused for turning out creative variations of themes already stated.” (I wrote about digging up this letter in “A Tennessee Williams Treasure Hunt,” on ROT on 11 April 2009. The post includes a history of the origins of that letter.) That was over 60 years ago, but Murray seems to be carrying on the attitude that Williams (and Lerner) complained about. The Old Friends may not be one of Foote’s all-time best scripts (again despite Diana’s assertion), but I won’t dismiss it as second-rate Tennessee Williams (or Edward Albee or William Inge). It has the hallmarks of Foote’s best works: the softness, the sympathy for the good people and strugglers, the wry sense of humor, the vividness of the portraits, the lyricism of the speech, the capture of the locale (both the literal one and the one of the mind). If it also has aspects that are startling and even shocking, then so be it. Foote, like all playwrights, is an artist, not a Xerox machine. Unlike Thomas Kinkade, Foote wasn’t compelled to paint the same scene canvas after canvas. His world, unlike Harrison, Texas, was bigger than that. And thank God, too.
[Max Lerner’s initial column that prompted Tennessee Williams’s letter was inspired by the critical reception of Williams’s The Rose Tattoo, which opened at Broadway’s Martin Beck Theatre on 3 February 1951. Like The Old Friends, Williams’s new play suffered in comparison with his previously produced, highly praised and successful works (The Glass Menagerie, 1945 on Broadway; A Streetcar Named Desire, 1947). In “Number One Boy,” Lerner wrote of Rose Tattoo:
Although it will never be a classic, there are passages of sheer delight in it which catch the audience up in a kinds of enchantment. I think most of the reviewers overrated it, as one or two underrated it . . . . Tennessee Williams didn’t really burst into genius with the “Glass Menagerie,” but had worked in obscurity over many plays before that one happened to click. He should be allowed a chance to deepen his talent and give shape to his outlook without fear of being hounded for his lapses. Every growing artist has a right to a number of failures, and can’t grow without them.
[Lerner wasn’t entirely correct about Rose Tattoo’s fate—it isn’t numbered among Williams’s great works, but it accorded second-tier status along with Summer and Smoke/Eccentricities of a Nightingale, Sweet Bird of Youth, and The Night of the Iguana. (No less an actress than Vanessa Redgrave has revived the play on Broadway.) In my opinion, The Old Friends will probably end in the same position among Foote’s canon. Unlike Rose Tattoo, which Williams wrote a decade after his great early hits, The Old Friends is an early work of Foote, even though it’s been premièred posthumously. Nonetheless, like Rose Tattoo (and another departure from Williams’s pattern a few years later, Camino Real), attempts to dismiss it will ultimately be unsuccessful because as audiences see it and appreciate what it offers of the playwright’s strengths and emphases. After noting the aspects of Rose Tattoo for which he didn’t care, Lerner declared, “Yet the quality of Williams is in this play.” I believe that can—ought to—be said of Foote and The Old Friends.
[Wrapping up his remarks about playwrights’ need to experiment and explore, Lerner concluded, “And for all his feeling that he has given us something new, I doubt that he has—nor do I see why should have to.” It works the other way, too, of course: an artist can try something new and maybe it works and maybe it doesn’t. Artists go where they have to go to see what’s there. Rather than condemn them for the attempts, we should be grateful they make the trip. Otherwise, they’re all Thomas Kinkade—and wouldn’t that be a pox on all our houses!]