October 2, 2013

"The Old Friends" Might Be Best If Forgot

This is the first time that The Old Friends, the Horton Foote melodrama now playing at Signature Theatre’s Irene Diamond Stage through Oct. 20, has been fully staged. And there may be a reason for that.  

Like most of Foote’s work, including his best known play, The Trip to Bountiful (still going at the Stephen Sondheim Theatre) The Old Friends is rooted in Harrison, Texas, the fictional stand-in for the small town where Foote grew up, and it revolves around squabbles over his trademark issues of love, money and real estate. 
The family in question is the Bordens, an affluent clan all of whom are, or were, unhappily married and hankering after someone else. That leads to lots of sexual frustration, heavy drinking and vicious jockeying over who deserved to inherit what. 

It all comes off, at least in this production, as an upmarket version of the Ewing clan from TV’s "Dallas.” Only the interactions between the Bordens and their friends aren’t nearly as much fun. Or as emotionally compelling as Foote’s other plays. Which may be why this one was never produced in his lifetime even though he worked on it for nearly 50 years.
Even so, I’d hoped this production might still offer some pleasure because it's directed by Michael Wilson, who has become the leading explicator of Foote’s work, as demonstrated by his luminous production of The Orphans’ Home Cycle, a nine play chronicle inspired by the playwright’s own family (click here for my review of that). 

Raising my hopes even more was The Old Friends’ cast, which includes Betty Buckley, Veanne Cox, Cotter Smith, Lois Smith and, as almost always, Foote’s daughter and the chief guardian of his legacy Hallie.
They’re all quite good, squeezing as much juice as they can from a crop of thinly-drawn characters. Particularly the women. Leading the pack is Buckley (click here to read an interview with her) long revered as a diva in the world of musicals and now here stealing the show as a sad wealthy widow, aching to buy some happiness. 

 Equally fine is Hallie Foote, who usually opts for the comic busybody roles in her father’s plays but here takes on a poor relation with surprisingly quiet dignity.  And I'm now of the opinion that Lois Smith can do no wrong. 

And yet sometimes even good acting is not enough. “Is that it?’ my friend Mary Anne asked when the lights went out on the final scene. All I could do was nod because, alas, that's all that was there.

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