The set-up: If you're a fan of Turner Classic Movies, I probably don't have to remind you of the joyous bitch fest that is Old Acquaintance (1943), adapted from the successful John Van Druten play. Remember dueling screen divas Bette Davis and Miriam Hopkins as dueling literary rivals? Davis is the no-nonsense quality writer with Hopkins the fluffy romancer who makes all the money? They are rivals in love, also, a lifetime battle between old friends.
I'm not sure if playwright Horton Foote, a literary sensation all his own, ever watched that Warner Bros. weepie, but I wouldn't be surprised. There's a lot of Old Acquaintance in The Old Friends. The execution: Davis, or the fossilized characterization she'd morph into late in her career, makes an appearance, although here she's called Gertrude Hayhurst Sylvester Ratliff and is portrayed most astonishingly by Broadway legend Betty Buckley (from Cats, in particular, for which she introduced "Memories" and won a Tony, along with a slew of other notable credits). Buckley runs away with the show as the drunkest woman on stage, next to Edward Albee's Martha, the mother of all drunks in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Buckley prowls the stage, getting more ripped by the glass, and expels her inner demons with the force of Vesuvius. She could care less whom she scalds. Crass, loud, vulgar, she's the richest person in Harrison, TX, and makes damned sure everybody knows it. She loves milquetoast Howard (Cotter Smith, reprising his role from the off-Broadway production), the brother of her late husband and manager of her vast empire, but treats him like a hired hand. Hungover in the morning and shuttered away in her rococo, swag-bedecked boudoir like Gloria Swanson in one of C.B. DeMille's silent movie marital extravaganzas, she's contrite and whiny, but only for a moment. Before you can say Jack Daniels, she turns gorgon, and the play revives with a rush. Without Buckley's fiery comic presence, Foote's play would be drab indeed.
The other colorful and resuscitating character is Julia (Veanne Cox, in her Alley debut. Cox has an impressive resume, too, which includes a 2014 Drama Desk Award for Excellence and Significant Contribution to the Theatre.) Julia is not an "old friend," but Gertrude's longtime nemesis, the daughter of family matriarch Miss Mamie (Annalee Jefferies, who's making her Alley return after a seven-year absence).
In Foote's interlocking genealogy, Julia has married much older Albert Price (the incomparable Jeffrey Bean, who's wasted in this role but does more with it than anyone I can think of). She, too, is rich and entitled. In the immortal description spat out at her by a drunken Gertrude, Julia is "a whore." Julia hates her life, hates her husband, and sleeps around as much as possible, which makes humiliated Albert hate his life, hate his wife, hate his mother-in-law, and keep drinking.
Julia's recent conquest is eager hunk Tom (Jay Sullivan, who's given nothing to do but look good and mix drinks), soon to be appropriated by Gertrude with her siren song of unlimited opportunities. Cox brings an irrepressible life force into Foote's gentility, giving her lines the crisp diction of someone who knows her way around a wife-swapping party. She's deliciously off-color. In David C. Woolard's provocative '60s costumes, Cox is a dream in orange organza or skintight turquoise sheath. With her astringent delivery, coiffed ginger hairdo, and panther sexiness, she's a true cougar. Where exactly did she come from, a Sondheim musical or a Dallas rerun?
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But this play isn't about Gertrude or Julia, it's about sensible and intelligent Sibyl (Hallie Foote, the playwright's daughter, an acclaimed actress and custodian of his legacy). Other than spry and feisty Ma Mamie (who shuffles around in old lady clothes like Vicky Lawrence in Mamma's Family), Sibyl is the only sober adult in this nest of drunken vipers. Married to Mamie's son Hugo, she's been away 30 years, living with the wildcatter she married when true love Howard turned to the dark side and fell for Gertrude. Now, widowed and destitute, she's returned to her childhood home of Harrison, perhaps to see what's happened to unrequited love Howard after all these years. But playwright Foote is too circumspect a Southern gentleman to lay this out or bother to fill in the dramatic gaps. Instead he gives us hazy reminiscences and sweet nothings in our ear. (We know little about any of these people.)
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In her sensible shoes and sensible dresses, this wallflower disappears into the scenery. Sibyl has an outburst in Act II when she gives a psychological thrashing to Gertrude (and unintentionally rattles Jeff Cowie's impressionistic set), but she's so nice and normal and forgiving and kind and saintly and...pretty much unbelievable. Sibyl seems to be in this play to make the other characters look exceptionally bad. Unfortunately, we want more of the wicked. Hallie Foote plays Sibyl with intentionally banked conviction and passion, but there's no way in hell she can overpower, even with sweetness, those two fabulous demons Gertrude and Julia, who plow through their scenes and make them their own. The play's balance is thrown off, strained in its comedy and overblown in its drama.
This is not Horton Foote as his most accomplished, nor how we wish to remember him. For an esteemed dramatist who has earned multiple awards from Hollywood, Broadway, and the Pulitzer committee, Old Friends is secondhand at best. Glimpses of his autumnal power slice through - the image of Miss Mamie, and later Sibyl, standing at the window enveloped in designer Rui Rita's fading twilight have more nostalgic sweep than all the forced melodrama. There are no surprises, no great revelations, no ahh-ha moments that might send shivers. We know exactly where this play is headed. Friends was written in the '60s, revised through workshops and readings, then put away to make room for other projects. Exhumed and produced posthumously off-Broadway in 2013, the result is a wobbly balance between Chekhov, Inge, Albee, and primetime soap. Motivations are sketchy, so too the characters, more so the play.
The verdict: Radiantly acted, though, and produced with seamless precision from original director Michael Wilson, who guided the Signature Theatre unveiling in NYC, the Alley's opening production at the University of Houston (while the company's downtown home is given a state-of-the-art sprucing) is the magic of theater spelled large. The Alley gives spring to Foote's fallen arches.
The Old Friends continues through September 7at the Lyndall Finley Wortham Theatre at the University of Houston, 4116 Elgin. Purchase tickets online at www.alleytheatre.org/uh or call 713-220-5700. $26 to $86.