October 10, 2007

"Dividing The Estate" is Wholly Entertaining

If Leo Tolstoy were alive today and going to theater in New York this season, he might rethink his famous edict that "every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." I don't know if it's a reflection of the shaky stock market or the fact that the parents of baby boomers are dying but in play after play over the past few weeks, families have been unhappy about one thing: their patrimony. There are the sisters squabbling over the rare stamps their mother left behind in Mauritius. And there are the Russian aristocrats in Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard and the coffee-growing clan in The Coffee Trees, Arthur Giron's Guatemala-based homage to Chekhov, all lamenting the fates of their once-grand legacies in the Resonance Ensemble productions currently playing in repertory at the Beckett Theatre. But, without a doubt, the best of these battling broods are the Gordons in Horton Foote's thoroughly entertaining Dividing the Estate.

Part of what makes the misery of the Gordons such a delight is the show's impeccable cast. Elizabeth Ashley, scarcely older than the actors who play her children, makes a marvelous matriarch and underplays her trademark smoldering sensuality just enough to make you realize what a vital force this woman was, and is. Hallie Foote, the playwright's daughter and renowned as one of his best interpreters, is a hoot as the youngest and greediest of the three adult children, all dependent on handouts from their cash-poor but land-rich mother. Gerald McRaney, best known for his work in several TV series, is totally comfortable on stage and totally believable as the middle-aged ne'er do well who as the only son will always be the apple of his doting mama's eye. And Arthur French as the family's ancient servant was so laugh-out-loud funny that my husband K started chuckling each time he just walked on stage.

But as wonderful as the performances are, it is the rich verisimilitude of the characters and the well crafted play in which they exist that make the evening at Primary Stages' 59E59 Theater such an enjoyable one. Horton Foote, now 91, had his first full-length play produced in 1941, was one of the founding fathers of TV drama in the Golden Age of Television in the '50s, and had his first hit screenplay, the Oscar-winning adaptation of "To Kill a Mockingbird," in 1962. Over the years he has won a Pulitzer Prize, two Academy Awards, a couple of Emmys and the National Medal of Arts. So it would be ridiculous to call him unsung as a writer. And yet, I confess that until the last few years, his name only rang a vague bell with me. But it wasn't just me. Foote has written some 60 plays over his career and only five of them have been produced on Broadway; the longest run was the 10 weeks for the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Young Man From Atlanta back in 1997. The Signature Theatre Company offered some recompense when it dedicated its 2005-2006 season to his work but, of course, that happened when he was 90.

I don't know why more attention has not been properly paid to Foote here in the capital of the theater world. Maybe we city folks just don't appreciate that so much of his work has revolved around the fictional Texas town of Harrison (the stand-in for the small town where he grew up). Or maybe it's that we like our playwrights to be as dramatic offstage as on—like Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, Lillian Hellman and William Inge— while Foote stayed married to the same woman for nearly 50 years and kept his politics largely to himself. Whatever the reason, this production, which is scheduled to play just until Oct. 27, is reason alone to show me the error of my ways.

Foote was in the audience the night my husband K and I saw Dividing the Estate. Sitting ramrod straight in a seat at the back of the theater, nodding graciously to audience members who, recognizing him, went over to shake his hand and say a few words of thanks. Maybe Tolstoy had it right after all. One way to distinguish an unhappy family is to do what Foote does: treat it with love and respect.

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