Young Man Puts Best Foote Forward

Young Man Puts Best Foote Forward If ever in your life you've lost a job, been fired, been replaced, been downsized, as the repulsive expression goes, or have ever had some other deep ruinous disappointment in life‹particularly late in life‹you'll know exactly how Will Kidder feels, and you won't have to be from Texas to know it.

If ever in your life you've lost a job, been fired, been replaced, been downsized, as the repulsive expression goes, or have ever had some other deep ruinous disappointment in life‹particularly late in life‹you'll know exactly how Will Kidder feels, and you won't have to be from Texas to know it.

Will Kidder of Houston, Texas, unlike Willy Loman, doesn't commit suicide when he's been eased out of his lifelong job. He grits his teeth and when all other doors are shut, accepts the bone that's been thrown to him, the demeaning little make-work position in the same firm that he's repeatedly sworn he'll never take.

It's Will and Lily Dale Kidder's son Bill who may have committed suicide some years ago‹walked into a lake and drowned himself without explanation‹but if you think all this is doom-doom, gloom-gloom, heavy morose tragic without relief, you don't know Horton Foote, and you have another think coming.

Horton Foote writes plays that are so deceptively pure, plain, open and un-morose as to make you ashamed to have ever written a bad sentence in your life. Perhaps you've noticed that the word "life" has now appeared five times‹once as "lifelong"‹in the four paragraphs here so far, and life is what Horton Foote writes about, the life that plain people go through in plain terms, with all the gloom-gloom somewhere below. But, of course, there are no plain people in or out of Horton Foote. That is the secret Horton knows; the secret that was bred into his Texas bones.

It took 30 or so years for the Pulitzer Prize judges to catch up to the Oscar-winning screenwriter of To Kill a Mocking Bird and Tender Mercies, and when they did catch up it was for The Young Man from Atlanta, the powerful play about Will and Lily Dale Kidder and their son Bill and Bill's friend Randy from Atlanta that premiered in a Signature Theatre Company season devoted entirely to the work of Horton Foote, and is now, two years later, at the Longacre Theatre.

Note the Broadway. How many years since you were last there, Horton?

"Well, it's been a long journey, a long time," he said over the phone from Wharton, TX, the hometown where he'd gone to cool out between openings of his plays in North Carolina and Chicago and this opening in New York. "The last one was [The] Traveling Lady, with Kim Stanley, in I guess 1954.In those days it was the goal -- to get to Broadway. I don't think it's the goal any more. I mean, Broadway is a nice place to be, but . . ." The opening in North Carolina had been for The Death of Papa, the ninth play in Foote's "Orphan's Home" cycle about the Robideaux (i.e., his father's) family‹a world premiere "that's been held up all these years" waiting for Matthew Broderick, who made his acting debut as Bro in the cycle 17 years ago at the HB Studio on Bank Street, to grow old enough to be Bro again in this one. "Bro is now 28, so Matthew just did it," in a cast that included Ellen Burstyn, Polly Holliday and Hallie Foote, daughter of Horton.

The opening in Chicago had been for The Young Man From Atlanta at the Goodman Theatre, directed by Robert Falls ("he's wonderful"), starring Rip Torn and Shirley Knight as Will Kidder and Lily Dale Kidder‹the production that's now come to the Longacre.

Rip Torn is from east Texas; Horton Foote is from southeast Texas.

"I've never worked with Rip before and have wanted to all my life," said the playwright. "Of course, you know I was very close to Geraldine" -- the late and great Geraldine Page (Mrs. Rip Torn), who was one of the Foote triumvirate of the wonderful years (Julie Harris, Kim Stanley, Geraldine Page) and at long last won her own Oscar in 1986 in The Trip to Bountiful, by Horton Foote.

"I always wanted to work with Shirley [Knight], too, and only did once, many years ago in television."

Like many characters in Foote's plays, Lily Dale Kidder has put in an earlier appearance in the "Orphan's" series. The play was called Lily Dale. "She's 18 in that play and very self-centered -- at the center of attention of her stepfather and her mother. Then her brother comes on a visit; it makes a kind of sibling rivalry." Also bridging between past and present dramas is that stepfather, Pete Davenport (William Biff McGuire at the Longacre).

"When I finished the cycle, I never thought I'd do any more with these people," said Foote. "But then I just wanted to explore this [later] part of their lives."

Horton, said an interviewer, struggling to be diplomatic‹Horton, do you think winning the Pulitzer had anything . . . "Anything to do with getting this play to Broadway? Oh, I think it had a lot to do with it. Let's be frank here. I wish I could say otherwise, but it is not so, damn it.

"You know," he continued -- talking now about the kind of executives, managers, takeover guys who in American society today wipe out the Will Kidders of this world in the blink of a bottom line -- "greed is an extraordinary thing. I suppose we all have our levels of greed, but I try to fight it."

Keep fighting, Horton. Keep writing.

-- By Jerry Tallmer