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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 Uncategorized

 

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Ah Betty

Like a rare precious gem is the performer who possesses every qualification of a diva save the diva-ness. Betty Buckley has a voice to match the angels in its glory*, a resume to beat the band and the warmth and palatable sense of fun of a favorite (glamorous) friend. She is packing the (soon to be shuttered) house at Feinstein’s for the month of October in what’s become an annual highlight of the season.

This year Ms. Buckley is moving on from the Ah Men (of 2011), to The Other Woman:The Vixens of Broadway. Now the only thing better than the men’s songs in musical theatre are those of the second, supporting or featured actress. The supporting female roles are meaty and often far more interesting than the leads. What better catalogue to sink one’s teeth! While known for big Broadway roles and work on the screen; Ms. Buckley conveys a soul of a jazz artist. The artist is in perfect voice and it is one that moves seamlessly between thoughtful, quiet interpretation and raising the roof power.

Ms. Buckley selects several of her favorites and puts her own personal, and often delicate, spin on each. When You’re Good To Mama is sung to several audience members while tousling hairs. Her playful interpretation is enchanting and often missing in other’s performances of this song. A dynamo of a pastiche (words by Eric Kornfeld, musical adaptation by Eric Stern) paints a portrait of the supporting female lead to the melody of Gotta Have A Gimmick (Gypsy), Memory (Cats) and Little Girls (Annie). It is wonderfully funny and clever and a keeper. Other highlights include; I Can’t Say No (Oklahoma), The Miller’s Son (A Little Night Music), I Know Things Now (Into The Woods) and Another Suitcase In Another Hall (Evita). Ms. Buckley’s band (with the musical director/arranger Christian Jacob on piano) is fluid and jazzy and a perfect balance for the singer’s artistry. For two songs, Ms. Buckley is joined on stage by silky voiced and utterly charming Adam Berry. The evening ended with Corner of the Sky (Pippin) a song with a soaring melody and a sensible philosophy. A night with Betty Buckley guarantees that one’s life will be something more than long.

*Meadowlark (1989) – Stephen Schwartz

 
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Posted by on October 21, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

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Finding My Corner Of The Sky

Last night, for the third consecutive year, I visited with Betty Buckley at Feinsteins  The year’s show, billed as “Ah Men! The Boys of Broadway” is a collection of Ms. Buckley favorite show tunes (from film and stage) sung by male characters.  She opens, aptly, with ‘Tonight’, and goes on to explain her discovery of Riff (Russ Tamblyn) at the impressionable age of 14.  Having also experienced West Side Story at the age of 14, I can attest to the imprint it leaves.  Add to that the discovery of both Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly (as Ms Buckley and I both did) and well, can real life really ever compare?

It did last night.

Whether it is her chosen repertoire, or her Feinstein alumni status, Ms. Buckley has never seemed more at home.  Radiant in a silk shantung jacket, flowing silk pants, and leopard pumps devilishly peeking out from time to time, Ms Buckley communicates accessibility.  As a Broadway leading lady, with few if any equals, this Texas gal exudes a warmth and approachability that defies any (rightfully earned) diva-ship.  Also counter to diva-hood, is that Ms. Buckley, for all her Tony winning, has the soul of a folk singer.  She is a singer (and actress) adept at navigating all range of human emotion.  Her natural velvety voice can ache (reminding me of Jane Olivor) and then easily soar to heights of joy, making all the necessary stops along the way.  I wonder which comes first?  A delicate actress with a powerful core, or the singer?  I suspect that there is no separating the two in Betty Buckley.  She is so unique, that if your first exposure to a song is delivered by Ms. Buckley, it never really sounds “right” sung by anyone else (e.g., Meadowlark, Memory, score of Sunset Boulevard, etc.)

I have maintained that so many of the best songs written have been done so for male characters.  So it is no coincidence that I simply loved last night’s song list.  ‘I Won’t Dance,’ ‘Younger Than Springtime,’ ‘Something’s Coming,’ ‘Corner of the Sky,’ ‘More I Cannot Wish You,’ and an exquisite medley from ‘Sweeney Todd’ were just some of the selections.  Her smooth, strong and subtle voice, paired with her utter ease on stage, created the most intimate experience.  Making strong eye contact with the audience, she created a space that was more ‘living room’ than ‘cabaret.’  Which, truly is the mark of great cabaret.  I was also struck by her very enjoyable sense of humor.  I found myself thinking (please don’t hate me Ms. Buckley): “Wow, she would really be a great Miss Hannigan.”

This personal, moving, absolutely fabulous show will be playing for the month of October.  It truly is not to be missed.

 
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Posted by on October 6, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

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