A departure for Foote, bad behavior of ‘Friends’ is great theater

By Everett Evans, The Houston Chronicle

August 21, 2014

Characters behaving badly are the core of many playwrights’ works – but not usually Horton Foote’s.

Oh, there may be the wastrel brother or cousin skulking at the edges. But in most of Foote’s masterworks, from “The Trip to Bountiful” to “The Orphan’s Home Cycle,” the protagonists, for all their failings, are quietly struggling, essentially decent folk. One always felt Foote admired them and wanted us to do so as well.

“The Old Friends,” making its Houston debut in the Alley Theatre’s adroit refitting of Signature Theatre’s 2013 off-Broadway production, is the exception.

Set in 1965 in the Texas town of Harrison (locale for most of Foote’s plays), “The Old Friends” portrays a clutch of uncharacteristically worldly, affluent, insatiably greedy and self-centered characters. Several key figures drink heavily, engage in casual extramarital affairs and behave with undisguised hostility – hurling insults, even brandishing weapons on multiple occasions. It’s Foote’s small-town Texas, but with the melodramatic flourishes and Southern decadence more associated with Tennessee Williams plays like “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” and “Sweet Bird of Youth.”

One can imagine the invariably gentlemanly Foote rolling his eyes at these folks’ more excessive and inhumane antics – and expecting us to enjoy doing so as well. (We do.) Yet, ever the keen observer of human nature, he understands them as well as the more recognizably understated Foote figures they are victimizing. Whether vicious or quietly long-suffering, all are driven by similar yearning, fear and frustration.

Needless to say, with the masterful Foote turning all this to sound theatrical effect – and especially with pre-eminent Foote director Michael Wilson confidently guiding a to-die-for cast in its juicy roles, with Tony winner Betty Buckley reprising her acclaimed turn in the juiciest of them all – “The Old Friends” is rousingly enjoyable, must-see theater.

Foote began “The Old Friends” in the 1960s, returned to it sporadically, but completed it only a few years before his death in 2009. With its posthumous premiere last year, it’s one of this master playwright’s final gifts to the theatergoing public, lending particular interest to its blend of characteristic and atypical elements.

The plot is a complex tangle of relationships between members of two prominent Harrison families. Gertrude Hayhurst Sylvester Ratliff (Buckley) is the richest woman in town, recently widowed. As Gertrude has always had a yen for her late husband’s brother, Howard Ratliff, she’s made him manager of her farmlands, hoping to ensnare him as her next husband.

The catalyst for upheaval is the return of Sybil Borden after many years in South America with her oilman husband. His family is awaiting the couple’s return as the play begins – but at the end of the first scene, a shell-shocked Sybil arrives with the news that her husband has died on the journey home. In the days that follow, Sybil and Howard, who almost married 30 years earlier, start to turn to each other again – infuriating the jealous Gertrude.

Sybil must also cope with the turmoil of her late husband’s family. Beleaguered matriarch Mamie Borden has had control of the family money wrested away by her venal daughter Julia Price, a runaround who flaunts her affairs before her disgusted husband, Albert Price. When Julia sets her sights on young Tom Underwood, Gertrude decides that she wants him, too. The greedy Gertrude seems determined to compete both with Sybil for Howard and with Julia for Tom.

Wilson by now knows the world of Foote’s characters as well as Foote knew his people. His production weaves a texture of their ploys, dissatisfactions, gossip and discursive reminiscences. He sustains the atmosphere, whether in wistful interludes between Sybil and Howard, or the more outrageous outbursts of Gertrude, Julia and Albert. Jeff Cowie’s settings and David C. Woolard’s costumes aid in conjuring the milieu attractively.

Buckley’s monstrously entitled Gertrude triumphantly storms, stalks, stomps and (when sufficiently soused) staggers through the proceedings. She makes it plain that getting her way is as natural to Gertrude as breathing. After her spectacular drunken tirade in Act 1, spewing vile abuse at Julia, you’ll be certain nothing in Act 2 can top it. But just wait for her room-wrecking tantrum – hell-on-wheels funny and terrifying as Joan Crawford on a tear.

Hallie Foote is her exact opposite as meek, seemingly defeated Sybil – a self-described ghost uneasily returning to her old haunts after decades away. She makes much of little, with her stark stillness and the wide-eyed attentiveness of an anxious rabbit. When she finally stands up to Buckley’s Gertrude, it’s highly satisfying.

Veanne Cox is superb as Julia, vividly capturing the aging party girl as she sashays from one foolish flirtation to the next, snapping sarcastically at anyone who dares to burst her bubble – desperately afraid of acting her age or even standing still She’s ¬≠smashingly stylish, funny and sad at the same time.

Cotter Smith radiates quiet strength and resolve as Howard, conveying his disgust that he’s let himself be manipulated – and how tough it is to take control of his life again.

Annalee Jefferies makes a poignant, drily funny Mamie – woebegone yet steely. Jeffrey Bean oozes sour resentment as the glowering Albert. Jay Sullivan is all charming opportunism as malleable, unprincipled Tom.

Venerable stage veteran Novella Nelson makes a seasoned, wary Hattie, and Michelle Elaine is crisp and efficient as Catherine.

As the characters square off as either takers or the disenfranchised, Foote may have been thinking of Lillian Hellman’s “The Little Foxes” and its line about “those who eat the earth and those who stand by and watch them do it.” The suspense is whether the characters who are decent – or at least reformable – can escape the orbit of the destructive ones.

‘The Old Friends’

When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays, 2:30 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. Sundays, through Sept. 7

Where: Alley Theatre production, at Wortham Theatre, University of Houston, Entrance 16, off Cullen