Horton Foote is one of those much-admired writers who has never quite gotten his due. Yes, he won a Pulitzer Prize for “The Young Man from Atlanta” and a pair of best-screenplay Oscars for “Tender Mercies” and “To Kill a Mockingbird,” but none of his 60-odd plays has had a decent Broadway run, and I know a not-inconsiderable number of otherwise avid playgoers to whom he is not much more than a name. To be sure, Signature Theatre Company’s 2005 revival of “The Trip to Bountiful” was so successful that it stirred up talk of a Broadway transfer, but no theaters were open that spring, so it disappeared into the memory hole.
Fortunately, Chicago’s Goodman Theatre is remounting Signature’s production of “The Trip to Bountiful” in March, while “Dividing the Estate,” which was first seen in Princeton in 1989 but never made it to New York, is now being performed Off Broadway by Primary Stages, a company that has a record of taking Mr. Foote’s work seriously. About time, too: “Dividing the Estate” is one of the best American plays to open on or off Broadway since I started covering theater for the Journal four years ago, and the fact that it is only just now receiving its New York premiere is downright scandalous.
Mr. Foote gets compared to Chekhov a lot, with good reason. His plays are bittersweet, loosely plotted snapshots of small-town southern life in which the comedy–of which there’s plenty–is flavored with the sharp aftertaste of regret. In “Dividing the Estate” the regret is shared by a family whose middle-aged members have squandered the best years of their lives feeding off the fast-shrinking bounty of Stella (Elizabeth Ashley), a land-rich, cash-poor Texas matriarch. Stella, it turns out, chose to continue living on her late husband’s farm instead of selling it off after his death and splitting the profits with her resentful children and grandchildren, whose souls have been soured by waiting too long to divvy up the spoils.
Part of what makes “Dividing the Estate” so effective is that Mr. Foote has shrewdly chosen to play this horrible situation for laughs, letting the underlying pain and suffering emerge between the lines. Nor does he make the mistake of turning his characters into gargoyles of greed. Even the shrewish Mary Jo (played to perfection by Hallie Foote, Mr. Foote’s daughter) is given her due as a human being…
Theresa Rebeck writes plays with glib, cute first acts that fall apart after intermission, so I suppose that “Mauritius,” her Broadway debut, could be said to be a step forward: It’s glib and cute all the way through….
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UPDATE: To listen to or download an interview with Horton Foote on Downstage Center, the American Theatre Wing’s weekly satellite radio series, go here.