Friday, November 21, 2008

Dividing the Estate


By Horton Foote. Dir. Michael Wilson. Booth Theatre. (CLOSED)

Though the tone of the praise is occasionally more reverent than revved-up, critics mostly hail Horton Foote's old-fashioned family comedy, transferred from last season's acclaimed Off-Broadway run at Primary Stages, for its sensitive humanism, the performances—particularly those of Elizabeth Ashley and Hallie Foote, the playwright's daughter—and its uncanny relevance to the current economic crisis. NOTE: The Hartford Courant's review was not graded, as it contained no discernible signs of evaluation.

Wall Street Journal A+
(Terry Teachout) It's a bitingly macabre comedy about a family of Texans who've been sponging off the money of their mother (Elizabeth Ashley) for so long that they've forgotten how to live their own lives...The best show now playing on Broadway, give or take Gypsy. Not only is it at least as good a play as August: Osage County, but this production, directed by Michael Wilson, is a stunner, a gorgeous piece of ensemble theater in which nobody puts a foot wrong.

The New York Times A
(Ben Brantley) Safely distanced by footlights, someone like Mary Jo, one of three squabbling siblings in Horton Foote’s tart and delicious Dividing the Estate, is heaven to be with. As played with true comic genius by Hallie Foote, the covetous, calculating Mary Jo has absolutely no sense of humor. But it’s hard to think of anyone on a Broadway stage right now...who’s funnier...This production...has ripened into an ideally balanced ensemble piece, with acting that matches and magnifies Mr. Foote’s slyly and acutely observant writing. A year ago Dividing the Estate was good, but a tad shaky in tone. This latest incarnation reveals it to be one of the masterworks of the 92-year-old Mr. Foote.

New York Post A
(Frank Scheck) This deeply humanistic and funny play is old-fashioned in the best sense. Director Michael Wilson's assured production features a wonderful ensemble cast whose seamless work feels even more lived-in than it did earlier...With death intruding not once but twice, there's an undeniable Chekhovian air to the proceedings. But it's alleviated by the richly comic, Southern-flavored dialogue and Foote's obvious empathy for all of his characters, even when they're behaving badly.

Bloomberg News A
(John Simon) Foote has over many years shown his ability to conjure up Texas milieus with his plays and screenplays redolent of everyday tragicomedy...Dividing the Estate is easily as good as, if not better than, his best earlier work...Dividing the Estate will draw you into its drawing room and the shadows beyond with the theatrical equivalent of a page- turner, capturing your undivided attention as you hang on its teasing turmoil in guiltlessly glad complicity.

Newsday A
(Linda Winer) Old-fashioned but bracingly unsentimental...Foote - 92 and definitely still counting - keeps adding to his remarkable stack of more than 60 intricately naturalistic scripts. Highlights in this one include his actress-daughter Hallie Foote, who descends on her mama's big old house with skinny-lipped buzz saw desperation. "I want everything," she snaps. "What do you want?"

Associated Press A
(Michael Kuchwara) Horton Foote's hilariously perceptive take on what good old-fashioned greed does to one cash-strapped Texas family...And while you think you may be getting a laundry lists of incidents recited by the more senior members of the household, the playwright has something more on his mind...There is a generosity of spirit in Foote's handiwork. He embraces all his creations, even the most mean-spirited of them. They are part of the fabric of everyday life in a small Texas town where such things as family squabbles over money are regular occurrences. And in Dividing the Estate, Foote manages to make them highly theatrical.

Backstage A
(David Sheward) There are showy parts and subtle ones, all played with honesty and precision and directed by Michael Wilson with a perfect balance of verisimilitude and theatricality...The play will probably turn up on the schedules of many regional and community theatres thanks to its single set (charmingly realized here by Jeff Cowie) and myriad meaty roles. Actors should take a gander for future employment opportunities and to see one of our finest authors near the top of his form.

Theatermania A
(Barbara & Scott Siegel) This work is not the little, quiet, and delicate dissection of Southern life and the people who live it that we've come to expect from this celebrated playwright. Instead, it's a southern gothic comedy about family and avarice that is full of well-earned belly-laughs. Who knew Foote could be this funny?

NY Observer A
(John Heilpern) Foote disproves the generalization that the skills of successful playwrights are at their juiciest in youth. To the contrary, the signs are that Mr. Foote’s energy and talent are unflagging...Mr. Foote’s writing is characterized by an unmodish sense of compassion and emotional restraint, and his language is everyday...The big ensemble of Dividing the Estate is well directed by Michael Wilson, who captures the shifting mood and nuances of the play beautifully.

New Yorker A
Horton Foote’s play about a Texas clan squabbling over finances moves to Broadway, and just in time: money-minded audiences will be pleased to know that the estate tax can be funny...What makes the play so charmingly batty is its obsessive-compulsive focus. The characters argue incessantly about dividing the estate, and not even the intrusion of death can stop them. Shrewd and admirably restrained, the play (directed by Michael Wilson) is quietly potent in its suggestion that cash is thicker than blood.

Variety A-
(David Rooney) A tart Chekhovian elegy for a disappearing way of life and a gentle skewering of complacent privilege...The well-worn scenario is familiar from more than one chestnut of Southern drama. But the playwright's work, as always, is distinguished by the delicate brushstrokes of his characterizations, making seasoned stereotypes human and giving even the most venal of them some hint of redeeming vulnerability. Perhaps even more essential to the old-fashioned play's appeal is Foote's deep understanding of the personalities within a precisely defined subculture. There's an exquisite balance between insidiousness and charm in this vipers' nest, and between affectionate anecdote and malicious gossip in their chatter.

The Record A-
(Robert Feldberg) Unlike many of Foote's plays, which have an aura of sad frustration, Dividing the Estate is a lively comedy, small in scale but with a surprising number of big laughs...Under the deft direction of Michael Wilson, Dividing the Estate glides along at an easy, unforced pace, with flavorful performances all around...The evening's highlight, though, is Hallie Foote, the playwright's daughter...Foote delivers a virtuoso comic performance that's worth the price of admission. Really.

The Daily News B+
(Joe Dziemianowicz) Ham, anyone? It's on the dinner table and at center stage in Horton Foote's Dividing the Estate, a lighthearted look at a fractious family facing financial straits and—Lord above!—each another...Under the deft direction of Michael Wilson, the actors are keener and the handsome production feels tighter...It's not as profound or ambitious as Broadway's other multigenerational melee, August: Osage County, but Foote's fine play does go down easy.

Time Out NY B+
(Adam Feldman) The eternally spry Horton Foote does a nimble Texas two-step in Dividing the Estate. Half the play is a leisurely, courtly, astutely observed portrait of cultural and generational change; the other half is a quick, lively comedy of manners and manors in decline...[Hallie] Foote—a specialist in her father’s work—pickpocketed the show Off Broadway as the tense and greedy Mary Jo, and now openly mugs it...But why complain? Foote is giving the comic performance of the season.

AM New York B+
(Matt Windman) In addition to its hearty laughs, Dividing the Estate is in fact a brilliant dissection of greedy family politics and the out-of-control economics that have caused our country’s current recession...Husky-voiced Elizabeth Ashley is stunning as she physically transforms herself into a female version of Big Daddy from Cat on a Hot Tin Roof...Michael Wilson’s production well-cast production displays pitch-perfect comic timing and nuanced characterization. B+
(Martin Denton) In some ways, [Foote has] written the timeliest comedy possible, though stylistically it feels like a vestige of a long-ago age, the one Stella and Doug grew up in, when ladies always wore hats and gloves and one lifted one's spirits with a good old-fashioned hymn like "Rock of Ages"...Michael Wilson's staging feels a bit less urgent than it did last year; how much of this, I wondered, is due to the larger distances the actors now must traverse on the Booth Theatre stage? Foote has cut his play some since last year, too, excising at least one exchange that I enjoyed so well that I quoted it in my review.

Village Voice B
(Michael Feingold) A reassuringly solid piece of theatrical furniture offering both regional style and moderate comic flair. Foote's tragicomic tale of a land-poor Texas family's fiscal woes now looks prophetic as well as quaintly sturdy...As played under Michael Wilson's direction, everything onstage seems natural, especially Penny Fuller and Hallie Foote as the two bickering sisters. Only Elizabeth Ashley's cane-thumping matriarch seems as exaggerated on Broadway as it did in the show's Off-Broadway unveiling last season.

Philadelphia Inquirer B
(Howard Shapiro) So much family history runs through Horton Foote's comedy Dividing the Estate, so much who-died-how and who-dissed-whom, that it threatens to suffocate the plot...Given the opportunities for zingers, the play itself could be more amusing. Still, its character development gives Dividing the Estate the hook to hold us through an evening that examines tax dodges and falling land sales and, more to the point, the greed that sets a generation of beneficiaries apart from its forebears. The play uneasily straddles the divide between comedy and caustic comment, on Jeff Cowie's detailed and elegant multi-room estate set. What balance it has comes from a 13-member cast that gives the play a starkly realistic feel.

Talkin' Broadway B
(Matthew Murray) When Primary Stages presented the show in the fall of 2007 with largely the same cast, it made a virtue of compactness...But rather than becoming more powerful and hilariously tragic in its transfer, gaining strength and topical relevance from the imploding stock market and the catastrophic housing crisis too reminiscent of the Gordons' Texas turmoil of 20 years ago, Dividing the Estate has grown colder and more distant...Many of the performances that were impeccably cut jewels Off-Broadway have had facets cracked by the now-necessary shouting and by the wear and tear of time.

USA Today C+
(Elysa Gardner) The folks we meet in Estate...can be immensely irritating, but they're not, well, bad people—or, truth be told, terribly interesting ones. That is the conundrum facing Michael Wilson, the director of this Lincoln Center Theater production, and his cast. If Estate's genial spirit is key to its charm, its lack of bite poses a considerable challenge...Wilson culls fine, unfussy performances from the company...Though these actors haven't the ingredients to cook up a truly meaty evening of theater, their resourcefulness—and Foote's grace—provide a mild kick.

The Journal News
(Jacques Le Sourd) Basically, a family sits around the dinner table, and its members claw at each other verbally for a couple of hours...You'll probably spend at least the first third of the play figuring out all the familial relationships in a large cast. These are not the fun Southerners of Tennessee Williams, who drink a lot. These people are abstemious, which makes them considerably more boring than other species of characters.

New York D+
(Stephanie Zacharek) The characters speak urgently and repeatedly about the need to “divaaahd the estate”—it takes them a while to get the phrase out, although not quite as long as it takes to actually divide the estate. The idea is that we’ll laugh at the family’s eccentricities and foibles, even as we sense their suffering...The whole enterprise has the feeling of a worn-out rug that’s been hung up for beating too many times. Dividing the Estate is harmless fun, which is good news only for those who fear being harmed by fun.

Wall Street Journal A+ 14; The New York Times A 13; New York Post A 13; Bloomberg News A 13; Associated Press A 13; Backstage A 13; ny Observer A 13; Theatermania A 13; New Yorker A 13; Variety A- 12; The Record A- 12; The Daily News B+ 11; TONY B+ 11; AM New York B+ 11; B+ 11; Village Voice B 10; Philadelphia Inquirer B 10; Talkin' Broadway B 10; USA Today C+ 8; Journal News C- 6; New York D+ 5; TOTAL: 248 / 22 = 11.27 (B+)

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