Going to a Horton Foote play is like catching up with good friends and friendly enemies at a family reunion. His posthumous debut “The Old Friends” is only now having its world premiere (earlier versions date back almost half a century) with a formidable cast led by Betty Buckley, Veanne Cox and Hallie Foote as three of these unruly characters. There’s a lot of exposition to get through before the festivities can begin, but once the awkward preliminaries are over and the cast hits its stride, we can relax and enjoy the endearing monsters that Foote has created.
All the elements are in place for another bittersweet chapter in the playwright’s continuing saga of life in Harrison, Tex., with a cast of characters we’ve met or at least heard of elsewhere in the scribe’s plays. Two families bound by blood, marriage and ancient feuds come together in the fall of 1965 for a happy occasion — the return of a prodigal son and his wife — and end up in mortal combat.
The basic storytelling chores of identifying the characters and accounting for their past and present relationships take up so much of the lengthy first scene that the news of a sudden death lands with a thud. Although the problem is built into the text, helmer Michael Wilson, Foote’s longtime go-to director, might have taken bolder measures to resolve it. Eventually, though, strong characterization and thesping prevail in this story of three women locked in romantic battle over the same man.
The titular head of the Borden-Price household, Mamie Borden (Lois Smith — who else?), is but a shadow of the heartless landowner and manipulative matriarch we’ve heard about. Having signed over the family estate to her grasping daughter Julia (viciously funny Veanne Cox) and Julia’s cloddish husband, Albert Price (Adam LeFevre, master of the slow burn), the widowed Mamie has lost the last bargaining chip that once made her word law in this house.
Smith plays Mamie with a touch of vagueness, suggesting she may be losing her mental faculties along with her money and political capital. But this veteran thesp shrewdly allows Mamie to rally when someone asks whatever became of a certain local beauty queen. “She was burned to death in a New Orleans rooming house,” she snaps. “She had no money left.”
It’s a brilliant line, not only a penetrating look into Mamie’s character and materialistic values, but also a telling example of the matter-of-fact fatalism reflected in Foote’s deadpan humor.
Having bullied her mother and her brother Hugo out of the family fortune, Julia is the new queen of the manor, and in Cox’s comically caustic perf, she’s every bit her mother’s daughter — bossy and bitchy and ruthless about money. But Julia’s fatal flaw is her vanity, which makes her a figure of ridicule when she struts around (in gaudy outfits designed with sweet savagery by David C. Woolard), trying to seduce every man in sight.
Foote’s unforgiving character study of Julia is matched and outclassed by his even nastier portrait of her “friend” and nemesis, Gertrude Hayhurst Sylvester Ratliff. Played by Buckley in bravura style and with great gusto, Gertrude is the prima diva in this crowd, a not-so-subtle caricature of a Texas matron of a certain age and social class: recently widowed, seriously alcoholic, and indecently rich — so rich that she’s grown accustomed to getting whatever she wants just by pointing at it. Buckley takes this marvelous monster to her heart, giving free rein to her acquisitive greed and making no apologies for her vulgarity.
Assuming (for the most part, rightly) that she can buy people with the same ease that she purchases jewelry, Gertrude is determined to acquire her brother-in-law, Howard (Cotter Smith), for her charm bracelet. She’s already made him her constant companion, as well as the manager of her vast farming interests, and is now aiming to make him her next husband. And the drunker she gets, the more demanding, so it looks like curtains for poor Howard.
But Foote has one more wild card to play in this pack of Jokers, a hand that saves the play from tipping over into total pessimism. This plot twist involves the just-widowed Sibyl Borden and engages the professional skills of the ever-amazing Hallie Foote, the playwright’s daughter and still the finest interpreter of his work. Nobody plays stillness the way Foote does, with her hands folded quietly in her lap and her huge eyes open to danger.
It’s impossible to look away from the outrageous antics of Gertrude and Julia and their hapless male consorts, but this is the character you really want to watch to understand the subtle dynamics of a Horton Foote play.