Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The Orphans' Home Cycle Part III


By Horton Foote, Directed by Michael Wilson. At The Signature Theatre through May 8th

Horton Foote's The Orphans' Home Cycle comes to a close, and while every reviewer concedes the journey is worth it, some feel that the third part is most definitely the weakest. Which isn't the same as saying it's bad-- the lowest grade in this set is a B- -- but just that the final trilogy of plays in the cycle lacks focus and seems edited to the point of choppiness. Not everyone feels this way of course, David Cote at Time Out, Jonathan Mandell at The Faster Times, Erik Haagensen at Backstage and Melissa Rose Bernardo are all ecstatic. To put it another way, there's a real split in this crop of reviews. Reviewers who use covering the third part as a way of opining on the whole cycle heap praise on the entire undertaking, while those that consider the third part on its own are left feeling respectful, but hardly over-the-moon.

Backstage A+
(Erik Haagensen) Now that the end of the cycle has been reached, I'm happy to say that what I hoped for after seeing Part One is true: Foote's final gift to the stage is glorious, an essential American masterwork.

The Faster Times A+
(Jonathan Mandell) The characters soldier on through their sorrows without much fuss, just as the playwright depicts their everyday struggles with an engaging modesty and familiarity. It is an approach that contrasts so heavily with the explosive, excessive, confrontational dramas to which we have become accustomed (or deadened) that “The Orphans’ Home Cycle” almost seems like the invention of a new art form. Having now seen all nine plays in three evenings over the last month – plays that will be presented in three programs in repertory at the Signature Theater Company through the end of March — I can say that I have found it the most rewarding theatrical experience of the season and probably one of the most memorable in my life.

Time Out New York A
(David Cote) [Foote has taken] nine plays and resculpted them into something elevated and elemental, like Greek tragedy. It’s not that the final part of his trilogy, The Story of Family, includes any cathartic spasms of matricide and revenge, even if Horace Robedaux (Bill Heck) has stored up a lifetime of resentment toward his mother. I mean the action exists in a kind of suspended reality—not bound by the laws of time and faintly ritualistic. So fine-tuned is the ensemble’s acting, and so precise is Michael Wilson’s direction, this temporal strangeness only heightens the complex pleasures of Foote’s melancholy masterpiece.

Entertainment Weekly A
(Melissa Rose Bernardo)After nine hours of The Orphans' Home Cycle, it seems ungrateful to want more: There are, after all, nine plays and three productions on display at Off Broadway's Signature Theatre; director Michael Wilson and his 22-member cast have done remarkable work, imbuing Foote's epic piece with a delicate intimacy. Even though you can always go back to visit — parts 1–3 rotate in repertory through March 28 — it's hard to leave Home.

New York Daily News A-
(Joe Dziemianowicz) Superior acting, direction and design work — hallmarks of the first two segments of "The Orphans' Home Cycle" — are front and center in this final installment. But there are some gaps. "1918" suffers from being compressed to an hour, and having Hallie Foote, so singular in voice and manner, double as a different character is distracting. And the presence of Horton's long-absent mother, Corella (Annalee Jefferies), doesn't quite square with what's come before.

New Jersey Newsroom A-
(Michael Sommers) In editing these nine full-length plays to one-hour versions each, Foote — who died last March at the age of 92 — compressed time significantly to the point where occasionally the action seems oddly choppy. But for viewers who invest their affections in the characters, witnessing the engrossing arc of Horace's personal journey plus the sincere realism of the acting goes a long way to ease such bumps in the text. Truly giving an ensemble performance, some 20-some actors do beautifully by the many people of long-ago southeastern Texas. Maturing believably in sober looks and attitude, Bill Heck's deep-feeling Horace manfully shoulders his burdens. Maggie Lacey positively glows as ever-supportive Elizabeth. The one and only Hallie Foote (the playwright's daughter) not only nicely depicts mournful Mrs. Vaughn but in "Cousins" shines drolly as a nouveau-riche relation who reports her disappointment with Europe.

NY Post B+
(Elisabeth Vincentelli) Closure at last! With a total running time now up to nine hours, Horton Foote's "The Orphans' Home Cycle" finally draws to an end with the opening of its third and last three-act installment, "The Story of a Family." It's been a long, steady ride since the first one opened in November, and reaching the destination brings a fulfilling sense of completion.

Associated Press B+
(Michael Kuchwara) After already having spent six hours with the man, Horace has, by this third collection of one acts, become an old friend. He anchors Foote's intricately woven tapestry of life in fictional Harrison, Texas, during the first three decades of the 20th century.Part 3, which opened Tuesday at off-Broadway's Signature Theatre Company, is called "The Story of a Family," and is directed — like Parts 1 and 2 — by Michael Wilson with stunning clarity. Its themes are pretty much summed up by one of the characters in the evening's second act: "A family is a remarkable thing, isn't it? You belong. And then you don't. It passes you by, unless you start a family of your own."

New York Times B
(Ben Brantley) The three short dramas that make up “The Story of a Family,” which opened on Tuesday night, are both the starkest and most sentimental of this lovingly painted life-and-times portrait, directed by Michael Wilson in a co-production of the Hartford Stage and the Signature Theater Company...That organic balance between things great and small is less assured in “The Story of a Family” than it is in the two earlier groupings, “The Story of a Childhood” and “The Story of a Marriage.” All the plays had to be trimmed — each to roughly an hour — to make the cycle’s presentation possible. And given the steady stream of momentous occurrences in this last section, the telescoping effect can start to feel surreal, with birth, death, disgrace, departure and reunion all happening within absurdly brief stage time. You wish that the poor characters (and sometimes the poor audience) were given at least a chance to catch their breath between deaths.

TalkinBroadway B
(Matthew Murray) So, sadly, does Part 3 as a whole. If “Cousins” fixes the thematic point of the epic, neither it nor its companion plays ultimately contribute as much, as deeply, as those in the preceding two evenings. That’s not to say that you shouldn’t see Part 3 if you’ve already devoted six hours to Parts 1 and 2 - you should. Nor is it to say that Part 3 isn’t basically satisfying - it is. But the payoff is not quite the equal of the investment, and if Parts 1 and 2 spanned the quality gamut from “amazing” to “otherworldly,” Part 3 must content itself with a solid, earthly, qualifier-free “good.”

TheaterMania B-
(Dan Bacalzo) The final installment of what has been a remarkable theatrical achievement -- combining nine of the late playwright's works into one three-part epic that follows the life of Horace Robedaux (Bill Heck), a character based on Foote's own father. However, this last trio, subtitled The Story of a Family, is unevenly presented and only partially fulfills the promise of the material.

North Jersey B-
(Robert Feldberg) After the extraordinarily affecting "Part 2," which followed Horace's courtship of Elizabeth Vaughn (Maggie Lacey) and their marriage, "Part 3" turns out something of a disappointment, although still worthwhile for followers of the story. (All three of the evenings are being presented in repertory, so if you missed the first two parts, you'll be able to catch up.)

Village Voice B-
(Michael Feingold) What significance Foote means us to draw from Horace's story isn't always clear. Taken as a whole, the trilogy shows a steady slippage of focus. Full of group comings and goings that, in Michael Wilson's production, often look mechanical, Part 3 seems awash in the reiterated family data and town gossip that, in earlier segments, function as a dramatic contrast to Horace's embittered silence. Even the climax, in which he finally explodes at his insufficiently caring mother, is overshadowed by a secondary character's having a similar but showier explosion. Still, the work has enough substance to support its three-evening length, especially with performers like Pat Bowie, Annalee Jefferies, Maggie Lacey, and Pamela Payton-Wright to articulate it.

BS A+ 14; TFT A+ 14; TONY A 13; EW A 13; NYDN A- 12; NJNR A- 12; NYP B+ 11; AP B+ 11; NYT B 10; TB B 10; TM B- 9; NJ B- 9; VV B- 9; TOTAL: 147/13= 11.31 (B+)


johnny.sixes said...

Hey guys. Love this service, and read it fairly regularly. I've gotten into the Orphans' Home Cycle this season and I think you're pretty on the mark in terms of ranking the reviews. However, I really think you need to take a second look at the NYTimes review for Part 3. In the full review, what immediately follows the blurb you've posted (which has the only potentially negative commentary of the whole review) is a rumination about how the trimming actually has it's advantages, adds clarity, and parallels the quickening pace of life as one grows older, etc. Not to mention the many other accolades Ben Brantley graces the production with. Frankly, I'd say if it's not a rave, it's pretty damn close. I imagine Brantley would take issue with your "B" grade. Think about giving it another look, guys. Thanks!

isaac butler said...

hey johnny,

i actually read the Times piece probably five times before assigning the grade, it was one of the hardest to grade reviews I've done in a long time.

Overall, I felt like Ben Brantley's take was respectful, positive without being over-the-moon (which definitely means it can't get into the A range). And he found enough problems with it that it seemed to fit firmly in the B slot.

Part of the problem with the review is that it is not clearly written and expends a lot of words without saying much about the show, content to summarize the plot more than anything else. That's another clear sign you're in "B" territory.

defying gravity said...

Didn't Variety and the WSJ review yet? I don't see them listed here...