Review - Dividing The Estate: Gimme Gimme

That cultish assemblage that likes to recite my reviews from memory on open mic nights at the Nuyorican Poets Café (it's weird being an icon for the culturally disenfranchised) may notice many similarities between my following scribblings on Lincoln Center Theater's Broadway production of Horton Foote's Dividing The Estate and my review of this mounting's original Off-Broadway run last season at Primary Stages. But if director Michael Wilson can do a cut and paste job, with minor adjustments here and there, there's no reason I can't do the same.

It's taken 19 years for this terrific Reaganomics era comedy to trickle down to Broadway since its 1989 premiere at New Jersey's McCarter Theatre (I suppose "trickle across" would be more accurate) but though the transfer from Off-Broadway just happened to come in at a time when the economic climate makes its story relevant again, this very funny and very human production would even be welcome in more prosperous times.

1987 was a disastrous year for the U.S. economy, particularly in Texas after the price of oil plummeted following a major stock market drop. Foote sets the piece shortly after "Black Monday" in the home of family matriarch Stella Gordon (Elizabeth Ashley). None of 85-year-old Stella's children, all over 50, have ever held a regular job, with all receiving a monthly allowance from the family estate. The two oldest, widow Lucille (Penny Fuller) and Lewis (Gerald McRaney), live at home while their sister Mary Jo (Hallie Foote) lives in Houston with her real estate selling husband Bob (James DeMarse) and party girl daughters Sissie (Nicole Lowrence) and Emily (Jenny Dare Paulin).

Lucille's son, named Son (Devon Abner), draws a salary for managing the family's estate and is often at odds with Lewis, who can't keep a job because of his gambling and drinking and is frequently in need to borrow from the family money. As the play begins, Son is hoping to get a raise so he can afford to marry the politically-minded schoolteacher Pauline (Maggie Lacey) while Lewis is in need of fast cash because he's being blackmailed by the father of the 19-year-old he's been dating (Virginia Kull).

Typical of Foote, Dividing The Estate seems deceptively light on plot until the pieces start fitting together and, in this case, the comic fireworks begin. The match is lit by a visit from Mary Jo and her family, who are in a financial crisis and want to discontinue the allowance system and just divide the estate among the three children. But with most of the estate's worth tied up in land, that quick fix could seriously decrease the value of their inheritance with the poor market and high taxes. Their decision will also affect the lives of family servants Mildred (Pat Bowie, the only new cast member), her daughter Cathleen (Kelana Richard) and the 92-year-old Doug (Arthur French).

With fine performances from an exceptional ensemble, Foote's play and Wilson's production combine to draw realistic laughs from family politics. There is lovely pathos in the relationship between Ashley's commanding matriarch and French, as the man who has worked for her family all his life and has turned into a cranky senior citizen who fears not being useful. Fuller and McRaney stand out as the gracious Lucille and emotional Lewis while Hallie Foote once again proves herself a supreme interpreter of her playwright father's material. Her desperate and manipulative Mary Jo is hilarious without ever seeming a character.

Contrasting with the less attractive antics of its inhabitants, Jeff Cowie's set is comfy, distinguished and tasteful, though the larger dimensions for the Booth Theatre stage take away that cramped feeling that so effectively emphasized the large family's discomfort with each other.

It's been over 10 years since Horton Foote was last represented on Broadway with his Pulitzer-winning, The Young Man From Atlanta. In the past several years we've seen outstanding Off-Broadway mountings of his The Trip to Bountiful (Signature Theatre) and The Day Emily Married (Primary Stages) but, at 92 years of age, it's good to see the grand old man on the big stage once again.

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From This Author Kristin Salaky

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