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Dividing the Estate

Horton Foote's dark comedy about family members at their most venal makes a successful transfer to Broadway. logo
Gerald McRaney, Elizabeth Ashley, and
Penny Fuller in Dividing the Estate
(© Joan Marcus)
Could it be that plays about families are making a comeback on Broadway?.After the remarkable triumph of August: Osage County, in which we met a family that defined the word "dysfunctional," we now meet a somehwat more normal clan created out of the fertile mind of Horton Foote in Dividing the Estate, the dark comedy that has transferred from its critically acclaimed run last season at Primary Stages to Broadway's Booth Theatre.

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?

As the title suggests, the playwright takes us to that universal world of family members at their most venal. It's 1987 and Stella (Elizabeth Ashley), an elderly Southern matriarch, dominates a family that lives off the income from her 5,000-acre Texas estate. None of her middle-aged children has actually ever held a job. Lewis (Gerald McRaney) is a womanizing bachelor with a bad gambling habit; Mary Jo (Hallie Foote) is a housewife who spends money well beyond her means and is teaching her two daughters, Emily (Jenna Dare Paulin) and Sissy (Nicole Lowrance) to do the same; and Lucille (Penny Fuller) is a widow who lives with her mother. Meanwhile, Lucille's son, called Son (Devon Abner), is devoted to the estate and actually runs the business, but with little compensation for his efforts.

The play begins with news that the family will be coming together for a dinner at Stella's home (designed with lived-in elegance by Jeff Cowie). It's the first time in at least five months since they've all been together, and Stella expects that the major topic of conversation will be dividing the estate so that her kids can get their hands on their money now rather than when she dies. She is, of course, right. In fact, the money-asking begins even before the full assemblage of the family can take place. Subplots abound, but they all have a tangential connection to both the value of the estate and the value in the relationships that have been forged there over time, particularly between Stella and her 92-year old servant, Doug (played with affectionate crankiness by Arthur French).

Director Michael Wilson has simply expanded the same play from last season into the larger Broadway house, with a deeper and more lavish set design. The characters have a bit more space between them, but they're playing Texans, so they have no trouble filling that extra room with their engaging, outsized personalities. More importantly, Wilson stages the play not only with an emphasis on the comedy, but with a feeling for the humanity of his characters. Ashley embraces her senior status and lords over her clan with her deep, intimidating voice. McRaney is a standout as the troubled Lewis, while Fuller is as delightful as she is poignant as the widow who serves at her mother's behest.

Foote, a fixture in her father's plays, is hilarious in her desperation as the most grasping of the three children, while Abner plays the responsible grandson with a charming calm that is wise and winning. Off-Broadway, Maggie Lacey, who portrays Son's fiancée Pauline, a local schoolteacher, was a less-than-credible character, but on Broadway, her performance is more effective for having been toned down.

There isn't a melodramatic bone in Horton Foote's body, nor in the body of his work. He writes about characters that, generally, live small lives and have modest but deeply felt needs. What tips this family drama over into comedy is that Foote has his characters playing for larger stakes; that over-reaching is what changes his usual tender mercy into a comic depiction of avarice.

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