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The Old Friends – Review

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What constitutes binding ties? Are they marital, familial or just familiarity? Horton Foote looks to untangle this question in the posthumous premiere; The Old Friends. Set in 1965 outside of Houston, Texas six adults are locked in a combustible and static pattern of interaction. The (often alcohol fueled) attacks and schemes are delivered daily. They may be dressed slightly differently from day to day, but they are the same greed, jealousy and loneliness inspired displays. These displays make for some phenomenal scenes and performances but are difficult to absorb.

Julia (Veanne Cox) is married to fabulously wealthy Albert (Adam LeFevre). Her mother Mamie (Lois Smith) lives with them. The play opens with the family awaiting the arrival of Julia’s ne’er do well brother and his wife Sybil (Hallie Foote.) Sybil arrives alone, freshly widowed and destitute. Mamie is distraught but not for reasons one might assume. Her son is dead and so is her plan of living with him (evidently life with her daughter is a virtual living hell, or so we’re told.) Small, stunned, nondescript Sybil is left alone in the living room when tornado Gertrude (Betty Buckley) arrives. In perhaps the greatest character study of pure narcissism ever to hit a stage, Gertrude goes on the most delicious rant about how she’s been treated at the cocktail party. Julia has been hitting on her man Howard (Cotter Smith) who incidentally is the brother of Gertrude’s late husband. There sits newly widowed Sybil looking and being treated like part of the furnishings. She’s better off to be frank, as there is an odd vortex at work here. Unlike Mamie’s reported mistreatment we actually see all the other wretchedness. These people are caught in an interpersonal dance that one might expect on a remote island not amongst people with the means to escape. Julia and Gertrude fight over the same men over and over again. They are not related and have gobs of money. Why are they locked in this mode, dragging everyone in and down with them? It’s not clear.

What is clear is that these parts are written with actors in mind and director Michael Wilson makes the most of that. Betty Buckley’s Gertrude will be the standard for every subsequent performer. It is no easy feat to portray drunkenness and keep a character interesting. Ms. Buckley is riveting and uses her voice (not surprisingly) in the most powerful way. The soft raspy sadness that bubbles up after one too many, the controlled and uncontrolled rage and the lyrical flirtations make for a vocal symphony. Howard (or probably any other human) is no match to her passions and fervor. He is merely there to keep away the loneliness (as we learn in a confession reminiscent of a 3:00 AM Judy Garland phone call) and she will fight to the finish to keep her fear of loneliness at bay. Howard however has been pining for Sybil for years. He seems a bright and interesting guy and it’s hard to see why he’d be holding a torch for such a meek and mousy woman. Perhaps it’s simply the result of thirty years in the presence of Gertrude and Julia. Julia (who seems to go after Howard in some sort of non-sibling rivalry with Gertrude) is loud and boozy as well. She just wants to have a good time and feels everyone is standing in her way. Her wig, physique and mannerisms often hint to Carol Burnett’s poignant portrayal of Eunice. Again, why don’t these people leave? This question hangs in the air as a trip to New York City is cancelled by Gertrude. Why didn’t they just go without her? How does a woman who’s not even related hold the reins so firmly?

We never really discover what the ties are. The ending of the play is so abrupt as to suggest that there are no answers to be had.

The Old Friends is playing (August 20 – September 29) at the Signature Theatre

 
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Posted by on August 21, 2013 in Theatre

 

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The Lady From Dubuque – Review

Edward Albee is not for the faint of heart.  You would not take in a matinee of his, expecting a light and frothy afternoon.  What you will get is a beautifully crafted peek into the human spirit. Those spirits are fighting for their lives in The Lady From Dubuque (Signature Theatre.)

Set in a suburban home, the play takes place over the course of one night and the following day.  The play (directed by David Esbjornson) opens on three couples playing a party game that involves the (oft repeated) phrase; “Who am I?”  The hosts Sam (Michael Hayden) and Jo (Laila Robins) bear a passing resemblance to another Albee couple; George and Martha.  In this case however, Sam is weakened by the kryptonite of his wife’s terminal disease.  Jo is biting, but not nearly to the degree to which she is entitled.  Their friends are mostly silly.  Edgar (Thomas Jay Ryan) and Lucinda (Catherine Curtin) are that special blend of vapid and shrill that makes some people phobic of the suburbs.  Fred (C.J. Wilson) and his girlfriend (Tricia Paoloccio) are at least interesting by virtue of his vulgarity and her preening.  There’s a reason these people all drink.

A bit past the midway of the first act, Jo rapidly deteriorates in (literal) gut wrenching pain.  It is difficult to watch the exquisite portrayal.  When Edgar demands that Jo, writhing in agony on the floor, get up and go apologize to his wife, Lucinda for an insult, it is almost too much to witness.  But then he points out what is so true it can not be discounted; his wife did not cause Jo’s pain, but Jo had caused Lucinda’s.  As Jo struggles to her feet, she is living rather than dying.  It is her last act of physicality.  The first act ends with a cresendo of agonizing wails and the appearance of an otherworldly figure; Elizabeth (Jane Alexander) and a dashing escort; Oscar (Peter Francis James.)

The tone of the second act is decidedly more physical, combative and high stakes.  Sam is frightened by the arrival of Elizabeth, who claims to be Jo’s mother.  His hysteria heightens and results in him being restrained (and ‘put to sleep’ with a strategic touch by Oscar.)  While he cannot articulate it, Sam knows who these people really are and why they are there.  The reality of death is simply far too painful for him to realize.

The rhythm and banter of Albee’s dialogue is a perfect conduit for this allegory.  His characters are so raw and real they create a platform for the surrealism that could feel forced or twee.  This play was not well received in 1980.  Death rarely is.  The only sticking point, for this audience member, was the treatment of race.  Much is made of Oscar’s “blackness” and the transition from superfluous racial humor to minstrel is rapid and unpleasant.  No doubt there is a dramatic intent, it just alluded me.

This is a flawless and beautiful production and should be seen by many.

 
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Posted by on April 1, 2012 in Theatre

 

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