To posthumously produce a final play from a major playwright is not unheard of. Long Day’s Journey into Night, now considered Eugene O’Neill’s masterpiece, was produced after his death, though he actually preferred it that way. In 2007, Radio Golf, the final part of August Wilson’s 10-part cycle of dramas exploring the African-American experience in the 20th century, was seen on Broadway more than a year after his passing. While Radio Golf turned out to be the weakest of the 10 plays, the cycle had to be brought to a close.
Off-Broadway’s Signature Theatre Company, immediately prior to its move to the luxurious, multi-stage Pershing Square Signature Center, gave Horton Foote, who passed away at age 92 in March 2009, an epic send-off the following season with The Orphans’ Home Cycle, three interconnected dramas that each consisted of three one-acts (most of which had been previously produced as individual plays). In all, they depicted the life of Foote’s father from the early 1990s through 1930s. Alas, the project didn’t move to Broadway, assumedly due to its size.
Now comes The Old Friends, a never-previously-produced nine-character drama by Foote that dates all the way back to the 1960s, when Foote wrote a first draft. Decades later, it received a workshop here and a reading there but never a fully fledged production. So Signature, sensing an opportunity, has launched its 2013-14 season, which will consist entirely of premieres by a variety of authors, with a starry production that features musical theater favorite Betty Buckley, the always funny Veanne Cox, the superb Lois Smith (who starred in Signature’s 2005 revival of Foote’s The Trip to Bountiful) and Hallie Foote, who has become the foremost interpreter of her father’s plays.
But if The Orphans’ Home Cycle was an epic tribute to Foote’s humanity-driven, intimately scaled, rather Chekhovian brand of playwriting, The Old Friends comes across as an attempt by Foote to experiment in the kind of gothic melodrama best identified with Tennessee Williams. Although set in Harrison, Texas, just like so many other Foote plays, The Old Friends does not fit all that comfortably into his bibliography.
It begins with Mamie (Smith), once the family matriarch and now reduced to living with her filthy rich, uncaring daughter Julia (Cox) and son-in-law Albert (Adam LeFevre), hoping that she will soon be able to live with her son Hugo and his daughter-in-law Sibyl (Foote). But upon Sibyl’s arrival from the airport, Mamie is shocked to learn that Hugo literally just passed away. Sibyl’s presence also reawakens old longings in Howard (Cotter Smith), a good-natured fellow who still harbors feelings for Sibyl and who works for his late brother’s frequently drunk widow Gertrude (Buckley), who in turn is possessive over Howard and sees Sibyl as a threat. Also hanging around is the young and handsome Tom (Sean Lyons), who is more than willing to play the gigolo to both Gertrude and Julia in order to get ahead.
The play features more than its fair share of soap opera-style fireworks, and Buckley, especially in her character’s drunken turns, misses no opportunity to chew the scenery. But as directed by Michael Wilson, a Foote expert, the rest of the cast delivers performances that are both convincing and colorful. It is, in particular, refreshing to see Hallie Foote, who is best known for playing nasty and whiny characters, portray the more introverted and kind Sibyl. Likewise, it is nice to have Smith, whose performance in the 2005 The Trip to Bountiful has now been overshadowed by Cicely Tyson in the current Broadway production, back in the spotlight. And while the play is hardly one of Foote’s best, after an exposition-filled start, it becomes mighty entertaining towards the end, gunshots and excessive liquor and all.