Collaboration between Primary Stage Company and Lincoln Center Theater has enabled Horton Foote’s gloriously funny play, “Dividing the Estate,” to be brought to Broadway. The accolades and strong business that greeted the play after it opened for a limited engagement last season at 59E59 Theaters were a strong indication that this honored play (Outer Critics Circle Awards winner 2007-’08 Outstanding New Off-Broadway Play) would have another and longer life. With the exception of one change in the cast and the expected adjustment of the set to accommodate the Booth Theater, everything appears to be not only as good as we remember but actually better. Unless I’m just a pushover for Foote’s endearingly comical play and for this extraordinary ensemble, this play provides an even richer and more rewarding experience than before.
It is not very likely that you will see a finer, funnier, or more enjoyable play on or off Broadway this season than “Dividing the Estate.” Taking as his inspiration the hard times that befell Texas and its longstanding families when the oil-gushing prosperity of the early 1980s suddenly dried up, native son Pulitzer Prize-winner (“The Young Man from Atlanta”) Foote has set his play in the small (fictional) town of Harrison, Texas. The prolific and lauded author of such memorable works as “The Trip to Bountiful” and “Tender Mercies” is finally seeing his 1989 play reap the rewards of a (long overdue) Broadway run.
About a venerable Texas family torn between preserving its homestead and heritage and selling the land for the dream of wealth it once promised, “Dividing the Estate” is sheer joy. We may presume that Foote has done considerable tweaking with the play since its premiere at McCarter Theater in 1989. But what is easy to see is that whatever faults it may have had then, it is, in its present state, free of them.
When the large and wealthy family in “Dividing The Estate” realizes that they are extended beyond their means, they quickly discover that facing their creditors without losing what has been accumulated over generations is rather less fearsome than facing each other. It is quite startling to see this 20-year-old play, in which a family is suddenly forced to face the reality of changing times and fortunes, in the light of the current economic crisis. How marvelous to see how what we might perceive as almost quaint under ordinary circumstances is now grimly timely and topical.
“Dividing the Estate” is affectionately textured with deftly defining (as in comical) dialogue and memorable characters. Michael Wilson, who directed Foote’s “The Day Emily Married” for Primary Stages, as well as “The Carpetbagger’s Children” for Lincoln Center Theater, is at the helm continuing to prove that he is a master at capturing the distinctly incomparable essence of Foote’s folk.
Despite the sameness of its repetitions and in the way that the characters shift attitudes and allegiances, the play is charmingly seductive. I didn’t count how many times someone said, in so many words, something about “dividing the estate,” but it is indicative of the way the play builds upon its progressive theme with a vengeance. It is almost musical in its journey to a resolve.
As a particularly sensitive chronicler of the rural South for over 67 years, Foote is unique in dramatizing the minutiae and simpler aspects of lives in upheaval. The play’s meticulously distilled dramatic development is left in the hands of its idiosyncratic family members. The cast of 13 can be complimented for presenting us with a roomful of sublimely idiosyncratic characters. Going over and over the same material may not seem like the most exciting way to dramatize, but Foote’s brilliance is in his ability to spark our interest by making the sameness seem not only fresh, but also welcomed.
Indomitable Southern matriarchy couldn’t be in better hands than Elizabeth Ashley’s. Notably at home with the Tennessee Williams canon, Ashley’s venture into Foote territory adds more luster to her distinguished career, as Stella, the family matriarch. Stella’s stubborn resistance to dividing the patriarch-less estate is given support by Son (Devon Abner). Abner, who was in the Signature Theater’s revival of Foote’s “The Trip to Bountiful,” is excellent and perceptibly resilient as the family’s business manager who, after dropping out of college, has tried against all odds to remain loyal and devoted to the family’s future and fortunes. Penny Fuller’s role as daughter-in-law Lucille doesn’t give her the opportunity to rest on eccentricities, but she is simply wonderful to watch as she exercises restraint in the face of chaos.
Family spoilers include Lewis (Gerald McRaney), the alcoholic, gambling ne’er-do-well in trouble with Irene (Virginia Kull), a high school girl, and Mary Jo (Hallie Foote), a spoiled, self-centered matron with two spoiled, self-centered daughters (Jenny Dare Paulin and Nicole Lowrance). Ms. Foote, whose presence in a Foote play might seem to be not only obligatory but essential, gives us a reason to cheer. Outrageously funny and deadly earnest, she frames Mary Jo’s callousness and single-purposed courage with a poignant sense of desperation. She also gets and deserves the most laughs with her obsessive goal to win parity in the family.
James Demarse is effective as Bob, Mary Jo’s panic-filled realtor husband who hasn’t sold a property in five months and is now faced with losing his own home to boot. Maggie Lacey is amusing as Pauline, Son’s schoolteacher-fiancee, who uses a slightly offbeat approach to diffuse the turbulence around her.
The bickering, intrusive servants are an important and amusing group. Arthur French is excellent and touching as Doug, the 92-year-old house servant, whose unstable service borders on the somnambulistic. Keiana Richard makes points as Cathleen, the outspoken maid with aspirations of law school, and Pat Bowie is quite delightful as Mildred, the resilient cook.
The play, which boasts an impressive living/dining room set by Jeff Cowie, projects the affluence of it inhabitants, all costumed nicely by David C. Woolard. Rather than dividing the estate, director Wilson has put all the pieces of this gallery of Southern Texans together to make a memorable mosaic of gentry at home and at their wits end. ****
“Dividing the Estate,” Booth Theatre, 222 West 45th Street. $75 to $95. 212-239-6200.