There‘s little affection between “The Old Friends” in Horton Foote‘s biting family drama

By Lucy Komisar

Betty Buckley as Gertrude Ratliff, Adam LeFevre as Albert Price and Veanne Cox as Julia Price, photo Joan Marcus.

Horton Foote‘s “The Old Friends” reminds one of a Tennessee Williams play or a Faulkner novel. Director Michael Wilson in fact is a Williams scholar. Wilson knows how to direct Foote‘s dysfunctional Southern family yarn to make it engrossing and keep it from descending into soap opera.

And Southern they must be, because the place is the old farming South where inhabitants in that time — 1965 — agreed more than in other regions to be tied by the rules of society. Except that when they were rich white folks, they might obey rules on the surface but break them with abandon. This is Harrison, TX, the imaginary town driving distance from Houston where Foote set many of his plays.

The anti-heroine is Betty Buckley, excellent as the fast-talking Gertrude, a moneyed widow in her early 50s. Close to her in age and interest is the fine Veanne Cox as Julia. Julia has a fat husband, Albert (Adam LeFevre), who wears a white suit and to whom she is egregiously nasty.  Why don‘t they split up? Perhaps because she has the money. In fact, how rich people treat non-rich people is the defining politics of the play.

Lois Smith as Mamie Borden, photo Joan Marus.

We start out at the small town home of Julia and Albert. The living room has unstylish sofa and chairs. (Set is by Jeff Cowie) Julia is flirting with Howard (Cotter Smith), also early 50s, the brother of Gertrude‘s late husband Gaynor, who manages Gertrude‘s farms. Gertrude wants more from him than professional services.

Gertrude and Julia are rich, spoiled and bored. Gertrude wants to go to New York to see plays — light musicals and hits. Julia wants to go to New York to go shopping and visit nightclubs. They plan a trip.

Another presence is Mamie (the terrific Lois Smith), 80, who is bubbly and giggly, perhaps to hide her angst. She is the mother of Julia and of Hugo, who has been out of the country for three decades. Mamie under pressure from Julia signed over the family property to Julia and cut Hugo out. Now she lives with Julia, who displays no warmth much less appreciation of her mother‘s forced generosity.

Hallie Foote as Sybil Borden and Cotter Smith as Howard Ratliff, photo Joan Marcus.

The drama picks up pace with the arrival of the mild Sybil (Hallie Foote with a deep Texas twang), who married Hugo 30 years before and spent the time since then unhappily wandering around Venezuelan oil fields. Their return was not auspicious:  Hugo died of a heart attack getting off the plane, and Sybil has no money.

Sybil had a history with Howard and could have married him instead of Hugo, but for no good reason didn‘t. She, the congenial Howard and the good-natured Mamie are the only people we like. (All are people without money.) I exclude here the black maids.

Gertrude is raucous especially when she is drunk. Buckley, who is from Fort Worth, exudes Texas. She gives a riveting performance. Red-haired Julia is tough and sullen, and flirty when it‘s not appropriate. Albert, who has not much personality, comes alive only when he finally puts on a good drunk.

Hallie Foote as Sybil, Betty Buckley as Gertrue Ratliff, Cotter Smith as Howard, brother of her late husband, photo Joan Marcus.

Foote writes a smashing second act opening with Gertrude in her grand bed. When she pulls off her sleep mask, she orders the maid (Melle Powers), “Bring me my dressing gown, my rings and a mirror.” She reminded me of one of those nasty fairy tale queens. Gertrude looks around darkened room and remarks, “I think it‘s like being in my coffin.” Well, they‘re all a little emotionally dead.

Since Howard has announced he‘s going to quit her employ, she begins auditioning a young replacement, Tom (Sean Lyons), the son of a woman she went to school with. “Do you want to be rich, you good looking thing?”

“The Old Friends,” of course, is a pretty ironic title. At a talk back after the performance, Hallie Foote, daughter of the playwright, said the first title was “The Dispossessed.” Not of land or money, but of humanity.

The Old Friends.” Written by Horton Foote, directed by Michael Wilson. Signature Theatre, 480 West 42nd Street, New York City. (212) 244-7539; Opened Sept 12, 2013; closes Oct 20, 2013. 10/4/13.

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