You probably have one in your family. And the odds are that he or she is making a lot of noise right now. I mean the kind of person who, when the going gets tough, is transformed from a respectable-looking grown-up into a greedy, caterwauling 4-year-old, convinced that everyone else is getting a bigger slice of what’s left of the cake.
Such people are hell to live with under the best of circumstances, and in times of pecuniary crisis they’re unbearable. But safely distanced by footlights, someone like Mary Jo, one of three squabbling siblings in Horton Foote’s tart and delicious “Dividing the Estate,” is heaven to be with. As played with true comic genius by Hallie Foote, the covetous, calculating Mary Jo has absolutely no sense of humor. But it’s hard to think of anyone on a Broadway stage right now (except possibly Mark Rylance in “Boeing-Boeing”) who’s funnier.
The problems confronting the sprawling, anxious, compulsively talky Texan clan of 1987 in “Dividing the Estate,” which opened Thursday night at the Booth Theater, will be familiar to many American families at the moment. The fraying dynasty presided over by the octogenarian matriarch Stella (Elizabeth Ashley) is discovering that plummeting real estate values, unforeseen taxes and a shrinking dollar are forcing its members to make do and get along (well, barely) in ways they never anticipated.
But even without the gloss of relevance it has acquired since its New York premiere Off Broadway in September 2007, “Dividing the Estate” would still be a must for discriminating theatergoers. This production — which arrives with most of its original cast, directed with hair-trigger timing by Michael Wilson — has ripened into an ideally balanced ensemble piece, with acting that matches and magnifies Mr. Foote’s slyly and acutely observant writing. A year ago “Dividing the Estate” was good, but a tad shaky in tone. This latest incarnation reveals it to be one of the masterworks of the 92-year-old Mr. Foote, the author of “The Trip to Bountiful,” “The Young Man From Atlanta” and the Oscar-winning screenplays for “Tender Mercies” and “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
On the surface “Dividing the Estate” has a lot in common with another play just down the street, the much-awarded, much-acclaimed “August: Osage County” by Tracy Letts. “August” too is a dysfunctional family portrait set in a big house in the wide-open West with a dominating mother at its center. But while Mr. Letts attacks American delusions with the battering ram of melodrama, scattering skeletons from all kinds of closets, Mr. Foote employs more devious means.
It’s not that his characters are any less confrontational than Mr. Letts’s. But if the unhappy relatives of “August” are given to bare-knuckled bruising, those of “Estate” appear to have been outfitted at birth with short white gloves. Even in the midst of violent argument, they remember to say “ma’am” and “sir.”
And — bless their hearts, as they might say — they do tend to wander all over the place in conversation. As Stella’s son, named Lewis but usually called Brother (and played by a superb Gerald McRaney), growls, “I just love the way everybody in this family changes conversations.”
Brother is sarcastic like that only when he’s been drinking, but he has a point. The characters in “Estate” meander, at length and repetitively, into winding byways of family history, town gossip and local folklore. But the marvel of Mr. Foote’s dialogue is how all this circumnavigation twists and bends into increasingly clear and affecting patterns. Mr. Foote’s characters may seem to be off topic; his writing never is.
The play unfolds in the town of Harrison, Tex. (the fictional setting of most of Mr. Foote’s plays), in the longtime family home of Stella; Lewis; her daughter Lucille (Penny Fuller) and Lucille’s grown son, Son (Devon Abner), who left college to help run the estate when his father died.
Also on hand is the ever-present Doug (Arthur French), an ancient family retainer of willing spirit and weaker-by-the-minute flesh, reluctant to cede his time-honored duties to Mildred (Pat Bowie), the housekeeper. On the day the play begins, a visit is expected from Mary Jo and her husband, Bob (James DeMarse, who has the Jaycee heartiness down pat), and their two grown daughters, Emily (Jenny Dare Paulin) and Sissie (Nicole Lowrance). This visit is advertised as just a friendly family drop-in, but it’s really about an urgent financial matter: to wit, dividing the estate among Lewis, Lucille and Mary Jo while Stella is still alive.
Momentous things, including two deaths, occur in “Dividing the Estate.” Yet you couldn’t exactly call it plot driven. That’s because even in extreme situations these folks never let up on the petty quarreling, conversational detours and the mercenary competitiveness that turns three siblings deep into middle age into scrapping toddlers in a nursery. Literature is filled with people who find greatness in crisis. Mr. Foote’s strength lies in drawing characters, with a gaze as clear and fresh as spring water, who remain as doggedly small as they always were.
You may need to have grown up in the South, as I did, to appreciate just how dead-on the details are here, and that extends to Jeff Cowie’s Texas haute-bourgeois set, all polished surfaces and plump upholstery, and David C. Woolard’s costumes. And, oh, the language: that mix of prurience and politeness, of genealogical debate and tut-tutting over the scandals next door, of stories of varying and increasingly mythic detail told again and again.
Mr. Foote makes ingenious expository use of the fact that two of his characters are old enough to have slipping memories and needful of reminding of who did what when. But repetition and reminiscence gives these characters their sense of identity in a world that is shrinking on the one hand, and expanding far too fast on the other.
Overseen by Mr. Wilson, who directs his large cast with a symphonic conductor’s tight orchestration of cues and rhythms, the performances capture precisely both sides of that equation. The formidable Ms. Ashley and the heartbreaking Mr. French find the fragility and enduring urge to control in old people of different social strata approaching the equality of death. The young performers — who also include Keiana Richàrd and Virginia Kull — are impatient and uncomprehending in just the right ways, signaling the future that can’t arrive quickly enough for them. And Mr. Abner’s Son, who is engaged to the fact-spouting schoolteacher Pauline (the appealing Maggie Lacey), has the touching, self-repressing stoicism of someone lost between generations long ago.
As Stella’s three children, Ms. Fuller, Mr. McRaney and Ms. Foote are excellent, a mixture of reciprocal censure and guilt, of envy and a familial connectedness that might not quite warrant the word love. Watching them snipe and spar with different strategic blends of passivity and aggression is great sport.
And Ms. Foote, the playwright’s daughter and frequent interpreter, makes Mary Jo a figure worthy of Molière, a small-boned, ineffective though tenacious bird of prey with ravenous eyes and a jutting neck. When it comes to dividing the estate, leave it to Mary Jo to say bluntly what’s really on everyone’s mind: “I want everything — what about you?”
It's tempting to call Horton Foote's new play, Dividing the Estate (**½ out of four), a black comedy. Death is a central figure, and the behavior can seem so petty and callous that you may not know whether to laugh or wince.
But the 92-year-old who gave us the The Trip to Bountiful and The Young Man From Atlanta, not to mention the Oscar-winning screenplays for To Kill a Mockingbird and Tender Mercies, is too gentle a soul to summon anything resembling real venom. The folks we meet in Estate, which opened Thursday at the Booth Theatre, can be immensely irritating, but they're not, well, bad people — or, truth be told, terribly interesting ones.
That is the conundrum facing Michael Wilson, the director of this Lincoln Center Theater production, and his cast. If Estate's genial spirit is key to its charm, its lack of bite poses a considerable challenge.
Set in Texas in 1987, the play focuses on a family confronting problems no doubt timely for audience members: a shifting economy and a shortage of cash. There is a feisty Southern matriarch named Stella, perhaps in a nod to Tennessee Williams — or to frequent Williams interpreter Elizabeth Ashley, who plays her.
Stella has three grown children, though to call them grown-ups would be a stretch; all rely on Mama to pay the bills. Lucille, a widow, at least lives with Stella and has a son — everyone calls him, simply, Son — who looks after their affairs. Lucille's brother and sister are basically freeloaders: Doug, a bachelor, gambles, drinks and gets into trouble with women, while the married Mary Jo keeps busy whining and enabling her spoiled daughters, Emily and Sissie.
When Mary Jo's egregious brood shows up for dinner, the conversation predictably disintegrates into a battle between the covetous and the more covetous. A sudden turn of events both disrupts the fight and emboldens the warriors. Without giving away too much, let's say that no one wins here — except perhaps the servants, who are left free to seek employment elsewhere.
Wilson culls fine, unfussy performances from the company. Ashley is, as usual, a joy to behold, witty and imposing and, even with white hair and a walking stick, gorgeous. Gerald McRaney finds the right balance of crankiness and pathos as Louis, while as Mary Jo, Hallie Foote, the playwright's daughter, is deliciously obnoxious — as are Jenny Dare Paulin and Nicole Lowrance, playing her brats.
Arthur French is sweetly funny as the eldest and drollest servant, and Maggie Lacey lends deadpan panache to Son's decidedly offbeat girlfriend.
Though these actors haven't the ingredients to cook up a truly meaty evening of theater, their resourcefulness — and Foote's grace — provide a mild kick.
Evidence that history repeats itself is everywhere in "Dividing the Estate." Once-valuable farmland has made way for strip malls, local businesses are being supplanted by foreign-owned factories, the real estate market has sunk, financial institutions are hurting and more and more folks are facing bankruptcy and home foreclosures. This sweetly satirical comedy about a Texas family squaring off over their inheritance could almost be unfolding in 2008, but Horton Foote wrote the play 20 years ago and set it against the economic turmoil of the late '80s.
The time warp may be cold comfort, but it nonetheless jogs the memory that recessions are as cyclical as the seasons. The one that backgrounds the action here was neither the first -- as a passing discussion of "The Grapes of Wrath" reminds us -- nor the last. Hello, plummeting bank balance.
The play had its regional premiere in 1989 but made it to New York only last year in this Primary Stages production (reviewed in Daily Variety, Sept. 28, 2007), now transferred to Broadway by Lincoln Center Theater with all but one of its accomplished 13-member ensemble intact.
A tart Chekhovian elegy for a disappearing way of life and a gentle skewering of complacent privilege, "Dividing the Estate" in many ways is a genteel cousin to the more acerbic domestic squabble being played out across the street in Tracy Letts' "August: Osage County."
The occasion is a family gathering during which three generations of the Gordon clan assemble in their grand old home in Harrison, Texas (the fictitious setting for most of Foote's plays). As the title plainly states, the subject, once they get past routine small talk, is the estate -- who gets what, and when. Widowed family matriarch Stella (Elizabeth Ashley) wants to ensure the house and land remain in the family even after her death. But others, led by brittle daughter Mary Jo (Hallie Foote), want to split the spoils in advance and get their hands on some cash fast.
The well-worn scenario is familiar from more than one chestnut of Southern drama. But the playwright's work, as always, is distinguished by the delicate brushstrokes of his characterizations, making seasoned stereotypes human and giving even the most venal of them some hint of redeeming vulnerability.
Perhaps even more essential to the old-fashioned play's appeal is Foote's deep understanding of the personalities within a precisely defined subculture. There's an exquisite balance between insidiousness and charm in this vipers' nest, and between affectionate anecdote and malicious gossip in their chatter. These folks are all out for themselves, yet somehow they remain an inextricably bound family.
Pauline (Maggie Lacey), the schoolteacher fiancee of Stella's estate-manager grandson (Devon Abner), is the chief conduit of information about the outside world, dropping anxious nuggets into the conversation about the environment, education and the economy. But while few responses are as blunt as the "Who cares?" that comes from one of Mary Jo's empty-headed divorcee daughters, the self-absorbed family generally is deaf to concerns beyond their immediate sphere.
There's nothing judgmental in the way Foote chastens them for their greed, pettiness and blissful isolation. Instead, he pulls the rug out from under his characters with humor that tempers its mischief with compassion.
Under Michael Wilson's decorous direction, the cast has deepened its ties while maintaining the light touch, the relaxed flow and the melodiousness of the talk that are essential to Foote's plays.
Even struggling with her erratic memory and failing health, Ashley's Stella remains an indomitable, soulful figure. Penny Fuller brings graciousness and just the right hint of self-interest to the more dutiful daughter. Gerald McRaney transitions beautifully from drunken grouchiness to unexpected emotional outpourings. And Arthur French supplies funny-sad poignancy as an ancient family retainer, proudly determined to serve dinner despite his trembling hands.
The prickly comic center of the play and the most vociferously demanding of Stella's children is Mary Jo. The playwright's daughter Hallie Foote skirts invigoratingly along the edge of sitcom in a performance that's near-hysterical yet never so abrasive we can't grasp her fear. She's the kind of chronically tactless figure that exists in pretty much every family.
Jeff Cowie's well-upholstered living/dining room set has grown since the Off Broadway run, acquiring some added dimension without too much loss of intimacy, while the unique flavor of the play's wily observations and melancholy warmth remains undiminished.