Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Dividing the Estate

Stick around for the second act. That’s when this play comes alive. The first is mostly what I’ve come to expect from Horton Foote, folks sitting around doing lots of talking that meanders all over the place just like in real life. Only in the theatre this gets a little dull after awhile.

It’s in the second act that the fun starts and the play becomes a lot funnier than I remember Foote’s plays being. Much of the credit for this goes to the playwright’s daughter, Hallie, who is the standout in what is an otherwise ensemble presentation. She had my attention whenever she was onstage, no matter who was talking. Watching her even in her sidelines times it is clear she is completely Mary Jo, the greediest of the relatives in the squabbling Gordon family. She listens intently to the others and is always ready to pounce.

“What do you pay him,” she asks as the rest of the family politely allows 91-year-old longtime servant Doug to ramble on about his thoughts on anything.

Mary Jo has no time for pleasantries. She, her husband and two daughters have come from Houston to the family estate in Harrison, TX, for one reason -- they’re on the verge of bankruptcy and want money. The others have their agendas too, but none is as blunt as Mary Jo. Ms. Foote delivers her lines with perfect dry comic timing.

Another enjoyable performance was delivered by Maggie Lacey as the fiancé of Mary Jo’s nephew, although her character is funny in the opposite way -- she’s so sweet and sunny she’s a great foil to the rest of them. Lacey avoids making her one dimensional, hitting just the right comic sensibility.

The one performance that never hit the mark for me was Elizabeth Ashley’s as the matriarch of this bunch. She comes off more like a lower class in-law who doesn’t quite fit in with her middle-class clan. She doesn’t look or sound like a gentlewoman of the Deep South who would have her Bible always beside her; rather, she seems more as if she were from blue collar Baltimore, with an unconvincing southern accent.

But then, gentility is losing ground in this world where money has been squandered and the grand estate will have to be divided. As the family sits around the dining room table and Mary Jo’s daughter Sissie talks about her silver and china patterns for her upcoming wedding, Mary Jo pointedly remarks, “My silver and china pattern are both discontinued.”

“Mine too,” says her sister, Lucille, sadly.

This sense of transience, in its wistfulness and welcomeness, is true of Horton Foote plays -- and true of life.

Primary Stages’ “Dividing the Estate” runs through Saturday at 59E59 Theaters.

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