Playwright Horton Foote, who died at age 92 in 2009, maintains a career that those of us still among the living would envy. Not long after his death the ambitious trilogy, The Orphans’ Home Cycle, was produced to great acclaim Off Broadway and across the country. The Trip to Bountiful, arguably his best-known play, continues a Tony-award winning run on Broadway through Oct. 9. And we have what’s described as “a long-in-progress” play, The Old Friends, at the Pershing Square Signature Center.
Long indeed. Foote began the play, a followup to two earlier works, in 1964, and pretty much put it aside until 2002, when Signature gave it a reading. It was apparently an attempt to emulate the plays of Tennessee Williams, and a second act set is a dead ringer for one in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. It’s also I think kin to Edward Albee and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?–all that drinking and carousing on stage. In trying on different voices, however, Foote suppressed his own. Directed by his frequent collaborator Michael Wilson, The Old Friends is a minor diversion, enlivened by a few sharp performances.
More outlandish than the usual plainspoken ladies of Foote’s Harrison, TX, a zaftig Betty Buckley flounces around the stage as Gertrude, a filthy rich widow in lust with her land manager, Howard (Cotter Smith). Gertrude pals around with her friend Julia (Veanne Cox) and her worn-down husband, Albert (Adam LeFevre), never seeming to go anywhere besides Julia’s liquor cabinet and nights around the record player listening to bossa nova hits. Julia’s mother, Mamie (the trooper Lois Smith, making what she can of an underwritten part), frets about being thrown out of the house she shares with her spiteful daughter. Bringing a little sunshine into her life is the reappearance, after years in South America, of her daughter-in-law Sybil (Hallie Foote), an event preceded by the death of her son. For the grasping Gertrude, however, Mamie’s blessing is more of a curse, as Howard always fancied Sybil, and is making eyes at her again.
Buckley and Cox always put on a show, and The Old Friends kicks into its highest gear when they’re trading quips and barbs, mostly concerning a handsome young interloper, Tom (Sean Lyons). But you know these harpies will have their wings clipped when Foote shows up. An estimable curator of her father’s work, she’s not always its most effective interpreter, and her limited performance brings the production down. You don’t see why Howard carries the torch for her, except that she’s a good person who’s endured her fair share of tribulations. So dull–who’d want to hang out with her when Betty Buckley’s around smashing glasses and having a roaring good time with Veanne Cox? That Horton Foote, taking a new tack with his writing, couldn’t drop the pinched, disapproving Sybil from the show holds it back from being the looser, seamier production he intended, with Hallie Foote becalming it in his comfort zone. Then again it’s impossible to imagine Williams or Albee attempting to write a show like Foote’s, so, with a nod to Buckley and Cox, I’ll be charitable and call The Old Friends a nice try.