PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Dividing the Estate — Setting Foote on Broadway

News   PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Dividing the Estate — Setting Foote on Broadway Cane in hand, moving gingerly, Broadway's Oldest Living Playwright — a fragile but hearty Horton Foote, 92 — joined his dozen actors on stage at the Booth Nov. 20 for their final bows and lapped up some limelight himself for his Dividing the Estate.
Elizabeth Ashley, Gerald McRaney, Penny Fuller, Arthur French, Hallie Foote, Devon Abner, Maggie Lacey, Jenny Dare Paulin, Keiana Richard, James DeMarse, Virginia Kull, Nicole Lowrance and Pat Bowie
Elizabeth Ashley, Gerald McRaney, Penny Fuller, Arthur French, Hallie Foote, Devon Abner, Maggie Lacey, Jenny Dare Paulin, Keiana Richard, James DeMarse, Virginia Kull, Nicole Lowrance and Pat Bowie Photo by Aubrey Reuben

To catch this historic moment, Lincoln Center Theater (which co-produced the play with Primary Stages, where it was unveiled last year) threw caution to the wind and, for the first time, permitted paparazzi to photograph the curtain call. It was the first time Foote had taken a bow on Broadway, he admitted later, since his days as an actor eons ago. It felt good, he said. "I enjoyed the play a lot tonight. It's a wonderful company, and the direction [by Foote-o-phile Michael Wilson] was just superb."

The softly rolling voice making the opening announcements at the start of the show (cellphones, et cetera) is Foote's "actor voice," rid of its regionalism early on through vigorous vocal training. The voice he has presented to the world as a playwright couldn't be more Lone Star specific, full of countrified colloquialisms and dropped g's favored by the dear hearts and gentle people of Foote's own Wharton, TX (here renamed "Harrison, TX," to keep the knowing and the back-fence gossips at bay).

Truth to tell, they're not very dear and hardly very gentle in Dividing the Estate, although they like to pretend they are even when they are saying or doing the most dastardly things. Foote has some perverse fun kicking this barely veiled Texas hypocrisy around the stage and, in the process, created a marvelously amusing monster for his daughter, Hallie Foote, to tear into in an impressive Broadway bow.

As the title promises, the play is a free-for-all fallout over inheritances. Three sets of siblings have descended on the old homestead with knives sharpened and drawn to carve up the just desserts — all of them smarting from the Savings and Loan crash of 1987 (when the play was written) — a foreshadowing speed-bump of things to come.

Hallie is the youngest and most ferociously focused of the greedy trio, Mary Jo, who has been living too high on the hog too long in Houston with her out-of-work husband (James DeMarse) and their two material-girl teenagers (Jenny Dare Paulin and Nicole Lowrance). The other corners in this brawl-in-the-family triangle are filled by Lewis, a loser with boozing and blackmailing problems (Gerald McRaney, brilliantly tipping an anguished interior life without ever directly addressing the subject) and Lucille (Penny Fuller), a reliable mainstay of the house whose main concern is the pulverizing that her son, "Son" (Devon Abner), will get from all sides and all comers because he has the misfortune of being the estate executor. The primary obstacle of all this financial flailing about by the second-generation is the unmovable object sitting on the family wealth, their mother Stella (Elizabeth Ashley), who opposes any dismantling of the estate to her almost dying breath.

This domestic donnybrook lasts two rounds — or acts, with two scenes each. On opening night, intermission fell at 8:01, and smokers who braved the bracing (!) night air witnessed a long-standing tradition of The Great White Way — the dimming of the lights in memory of one of theatre's most ardent admirers, critic Clive Barnes.

After the show, first-nighters adjourned to the fifth floor of the Marriott Marquis with its acres and acres of party space and Southern cuisine. Crossing 45th, it was easy to see the Hatfields and the McCoys had moved to Broadway, only their respective warfare was confined to their own familial navels: the Booth's money-grubbing Gordons of Texas vs. the Music Box's dazzlingly dysfunctional Westons of Oklahoma.

Estelle Parsons, a frequent Foote notable (The Last of the Thorntons, The Day Emily Married), currently rules the unruly Weston roost in Tracy Letts' Tony-winning August: Osage County, and, had it not been her 81st birthday, she might have showed.

At one point of the after-party, a relieved Jamie de Roy turned to cabaret director Barry Kleinbort and observed the truism: "It's easier to party if you really like the play."

The consensus was that the play had conspicuously improved across the board(s) in this transfer — better performances, better set, even better hair (courtesy of the gifted wig designer Paul Huntley, who crowned Ashley, Fuller and their maid played by Pat Bowie with character-evoking 'dos.) And the Booth was a boon to the actors.

"Thank God, we've got places like Primary Stages that put these plays on to begin with and get them the notice they do, but then you move it to a house like the Booth, and you have that luxury of space," said McRaney. "It looks like a real old Southern home, and the actors then have that space to build, and that makes it a lot easier. Psychologically, it's easier to fall into characters when you occupy the real space."

Put another way by the production stage manager, Roy Harris: "Now you can see what all the fighting was about. Jeff Cowie built the original set for the tiny stage at Primary Stages, and he was thrilled to death about what he could do at the Booth."

But it was more than physical space, in the view of director Wilson: "What I think is exciting is that the ideas of Horton's play have been able to expand to the size of the Booth stage, and now his ideas about how we live as Americans and how we've indulged ourselves and how we have not lived frugally and responsibly are just bigger than they've ever been. I think the play was allowed to expand and the ideas and feelings and emotions just got bigger in that space — but no less true."

At the party, Ashley looked about as matriarchic as your garden-variety sex kitten. Tricks of the trade, she waved away with a feminine flutter: "You put on tons of old stage makeup that you're sweating through. You hide behind feathers. I'd rather pluck a big chicken. I feel like a big chicken. I feel like a biiiig chicken."

A spring chicken perhaps, much too young to play matriarchs. She pooh-poohed the notion. "Darling, darling, I'm 69. The character is 83. All these broads are around mutilating themselves to play 20 or 30 years younger. I can play 15 years older."

Her date for the evening was her frequent producer, Jeffrey Richards, who relapsed into publicist on her behalf: "Do you realize there are very few actresses — in the '60s, '70s and '80s — who starred in the '50s? This is her sixth decade as a star on Broadway. She debuted in a play that Dore Schary wrote called The Highest Tree. It was at the Golden Theatre. She and Robert Redford played brother and sister.

"And of course it's a legendary thing that Penny Fuller followed her in Barefoot in the Park. Now they're in the same dressing room and playing mother and daughter!"

Horton Foote, Michael Wilson, Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens, Marian Seldes, Andrew Leynse and Mary Bacon , Paul Rudnick, Daryl Roth and Bernard Gersten, Tony Roberts, William Finn and Andre Bishop
photos by Aubrey Reuben

Fuller's natural sunshine wears well on a role that would, in lesser hands, be a thankless undertaking. "There are more razz-ma-tazzy parts. It's not easy to do, y'know — this decent woman who is silently holding the world together, taking care of everybody. We know those ladies. She's a really interesting woman. Her husband died, and I think her life is lived through her son and taking care of her mother, but I think that Pauline — the girl that her son is going to marry who is a teacher and a very educated woman — I think that's who Lucille would like to be, or would like to have been if she had been born a little later." She said she didn't really base her performance on Jane Craver, the sister of her Texas-born agent and friend, William Craver, "but we both realized it is her." In addition to the character, Fuller likes the uncanny topicality of the play. "Isn't that scary how prophetic this was? And he wrote it 20 years ago. It was prophetic last year, and now this year! Unbelievable!" The emotional immediacy that the play has gained in recent times was also apparent to Hallie Foote. "It's very topical," she contended, "I think more so a year later since we did it at Primary Stages. You feel that audience is all in on this story. Everybody has a connection. I think they get what even my character is going through."

She divided her time at the party, alternately doing interviews and playing Keeper of the Flame, looking in on her father, who also had his two sons in attendance — director Walter Foote and restaurateur Horton Foote Jr. The latter runs the popular Village eatery, Tavern on Jane — but on this particular night, without him. "It pretty well runs by itself," Jr. said confidently. "We're not there all the time. I was often told by one of the people I learned the business from that the sign of a good restaurant is not how well it runs when you're there but how well it runs when you're not there."

Author Foote also had a son-in-law in attendance — and indeed on stage: Abner, Hallie's husband who plays her first cousin in the play, the mensch-like "Son," who heroically holds the tide against his greedy elders. It's his Broadway debut as well — "12 years late," he ruefully noted. Abner was in the original cast of Foote's Pulitzer Prize-winning The Young Man From Atlanta with Ralph Waite and Carlin Glynn. "They fired the whole cast, except one person, right before Broadway," he said.

McRaney's compellingly passive performance has also benefited from a year of marinating. "We were just discussing the difference between last year at Primary Stages and here," he said. "I think the time off did us all a lot of good. We had the opportunity to digest the material a bit more. When you're working on it and you're close to it, sometimes you don't see the forest for the trees, but that time down from it gives you the opportunity to contemplate the work as a whole. What is Mr. Foote really asking here? What does this really mean? Then, of course, these economic times have dictated a different take on things than perhaps simple 1987 Texas."

A slimmed down Tony Roberts, looking like the Tony Roberts of old (just grayer), has been such an unfailing fixture at Penny Fuller openings one has to wonder if they have a blood oath going or something. "You've hit it exactly!" Roberts pounced. "We do have a blood oath, going all the way back to Northwestern University. That's where we met. We were assigned as dancing partners in the big musical event of the year at Northwestern, The Waa-mu Show. I worshipped her because she was the best actress at the school, and, after we graduated, we stayed in touch with each other, and, in a few years, we were starring in Barefoot in the Park together."

By the time Roberts entered Park, Ashley had moved on to other projects, but they did have a previous encounter: "Elizabeth was a great inspiration to me because my second job on Broadway was in Take Her, She's Mine," he recalled. "I replaced an actor, and I came into the company, and Elizabeth was so kind to me. It was such a thrill to be on stage with her. She was so real and she had such energy."

Next up for Roberts is Heroes, a three-hander which Tom Stoppard adapted from a French play by Gerald Sibleyras. He has the role that Equus' Richard Griffith played to recent acclaim in London opposite John Hurt and Ken Stott. "We will open Feb. 24 at the Clurman Theatre on 42nd Street and run until April 11, and then — if what I said to Phil Smith tonight has any effect — we'll open at the Music Box in May. John Cullum co-stars, and I don't know yet who the other actor is. It is directed by Carl Forsman, the artistic director of the Keen Company that's producing it."

Actress Mary Bacon, an official friend-of-the-court (as the wife of Primary Stages' artistic director Andrew Leynse), just returned from Yale Rep where she starred in the stateside premiere of another London hit, Lucinda Coxon's Happy Now? "I am the worst person to ask about it happening in New York," she admitted, "but it definitely should because I was amazed by the response to it — not just critically but, like, the audience loved it. I played a modern woman with two kids, trying to have a career and a life and a husband. And she starts to buckle under the stress. She meets a man [David Andrew McDonald] at a conference and he basically tells her, 'The sex is on the table any time you want.' And she laughs at him, but it starts to get to her, because she's not getting her needs met. A lot of people relate to that."

Prominent among the first-nighters were Alex Witchell and Frank Rich (both of whom have written eloquently about Foote and his work in their Paper of Record), Lincoln Center Theater's Bernard Gersten and Cora Cahan, Primary Stages' Casey Childs and Elliot Fox, producers Daryl Roth and Liz McCann, The League's Charlotte St. Martin and The Wing's Howard Sherman, director Mark Lamos, playwright Maria Eder, Marian Seldes ("I think the play is so beautiful, and it grows and grows"), David Margulies and Rick McKay with nutritionist in tow ("to keep me good").

Playwrights who have had their work done at Lincoln Center answered the opening-night roll call impressively: John Guare, John Weidman, an early-to-bed Paul Rudnick, Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens, William Finn and Alfred Uhry. The latter is "working on a new play for Lynne Meadow, I think," and Weidman — now that he and Stephen Sondheim have their Road Show up and at 'em at The Public — is starting an original Susan Stroman musical at Lincoln Center — as are, for that matter, Flaherty and Ahrens — and it's not the same musical, Flaherty is quick to note. "Ours is a music-theatre-dance hybrid. It's very romantic and it's set in Paris and it's about the creation of art and how dance figures into that."

The rumor that Foote is writing a new play was denied by him. "I'm resting," the nonagenarian said — but Lincoln Center's Andre Bishop hasn't noticed much resting. Bishop said, "He comes to every performance — every performance! An astounding person. We've provided him a beautiful apartment, and he comes here — obscene!"

The cast of <i>Dividing the Estate</i> at curtain call.
The cast of Dividing the Estate at curtain call. Photo by Aubrey Reuben