"Foote and South Unease"
As a longtime admirer of the prolific playwright, Horton Foote, who died in 2009 just before his 93rd birthday, I looked forward to adding The Young Man from Atlanta to the list of other Foote plays I’d seen, read, and appreciated. I’d missed its New York premiere at the then Off-Off-Broadway Signature Theatre, in 1995, when it won the Pulitzer. (It received a short-lived Broadway run in 1997.)
That prize, some have suggested, recognized not just the play but Foote’s extensive output, including three other Foote plays produced by the Signature that 1994-1995 season, Talking Pictures, Night Seasons, and Laura Dennis.
|Rear: Dan Bittner, Devon Abner, Harriett D. Foy, Stephen Payne; front: Aidan Quinn, Kristine Nielsen, Pat Bowie. All photos: Monique Carboni.|
The Signature, now one of New York’s prime Off-Broadway institutions, permanently ensconced at the impressive Pershing Square Signature Theatre, is again responsible for The Young Man from Atlanta, but it’s hard to see from this production—directed by Foote specialist Michael Wilson (The Trip to Bountiful)—aside from its author’s reputation, what might have inspired its receipt of a Pulitzer Prize. Enjoyable as some of it is, the writing is unmistakably old-fashioned, melodramatic, even, dependent on lengthy, over-obvious exposition, and burdened by an unsatisfying, almost perfunctory resolution.
|Aidan Quinn, Dan Bittner.|
And while it has a cast of notable actors, the production often suffers from overacting, as well as a scene design that serves more to confuse than to illuminate the topography of the dramatic locale.
The Young Man from Atlanta, named for a character who never actually appears, reminds us that, for all the glowing accounts we have of America’s grand, postwar economic boom, cracks in the system were forming, even for those who had floated successful careers on the rising tide of American capitalism. Houston, on the cusp of the boom, rapidly confirmed its position as the largest city in the American south, a sub-theme of the play, which posits Atlanta—which never came close—as its potential rival.
Profiting from his role as an executive at a Houston wholesale produce company is the gregarious Will Kidder (Aidan Quinn), 61 (the original script says 64), who has just bought a $200,000 home, as well as an expensive new car for his loving, although recently prayer-obsessed, wife, Lily Dale (Kristine Nielsen), 58 (61 in the original script), who abandoned her talented musical talents when Bill died. Will and Lily Dale recently suffered the tragic loss of their son, Bill, the circumstances of whose death by drowning point to suicide.
But not long into the first scene, in Will’s office, his boss, Ted Cleveland, Jr. (Devon Abner), citing business losses, has no alternative but to fire Will, who helped build the company with Ted’s father, and to hire as his much younger replacement, Tom Jackson (Dan Bittner). Both Tom and Ted are shown as humane, not rapacious, characters, but the bitter Will is determined to strike back by starting his own, rival company. First, however, he will need to raise the money for a big loan.
His initial optimism is dashed when he discovers that Lily Dale, to whom he annually gave sizable Christmas gifts of money, has doled out substantial amounts to Randy, a sweet young man from Atlanta. Randy, their son Bill’s roommate and loving friend at an Atlanta boarding house, has managed to earn Lily Dale’s considerable pity. (Hints suggesting Randy’s gayness, like his excessive weepiness, sprinkle the dialogue.) Will, though, has explicitly forbidden Lily Dale from being in contact with Randy. The family’s new economic constraints also ensnare the finances of Lily’s 78-year-old stepfather, Pete Davenport (Stephen Payne), an accommodating soul who’s been staying with the Kidders, on their dime.
|Kristine Nielsen, Stephen Payne.|
Will, crushed by the pressure of contending with the death of his 37-year-old son, the possibility of Lily Dale’s having been conned by Randy, and the difficulty of raising funds for his new business, is too much for him, and he suffers a heart attack that makes him housebound as he slowly recovers. In consequence, the play works out Will’s business problems, Lily Dale’s emotional ones, and the issue of Randy’s potentially fraudulent connivances, which Lily Dale is loath to accept because his words (whose relative truth or falsity remains ambiguous) offer succor in her time of need.
|Kristine Nielsen, Harriett D. Foy.|
It also introduces a silly, but interesting conspiracy theory given credence by the gullible Lily Dale about Eleanor Roosevelt supporting a so-called Disappointment Club in which black maids (there’s one in the play, well-played by Harriet D. Foy) conspired to disappoint white employers.
Regardless of the family tensions and misery that erupt from the confluence of Bill’s death, Will’s firing and resulting need for funding, Lily Dale’s disbursal of her savings, and yet another loss of money of which we learn, the play fails to coalesce convincingly. The secondary roles are all decently played, including Jon Orsini as Carson, Pete’s grandnephew, who once roomed with Randy. There’s also Etta Dorris, played effectively by Pat Bowie, an elderly black woman who once worked for the Kidders; the woman’s presence, though, seems decidedly extraneous.
|Pat Bowie, Kristine Nielsen.|
As Will, who suggests a Willy Loman-like aura of both brashness and defeat, the usually excellent Aidan Quinn (TV’s “Elementary”) is uneven, ranging from superficially anguished to artificially blustery, shouting far too often. Kristine Nielsen (Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus), one of our top comic actresses, has fewer convincing moments, being unable to meld her familiar flibbertigibbet mannerisms with a realistic portrait of Lily Dale that goes beyond making her a perpetual airhead. And Stephen Payne’s (Straight White Men) Pete is simply colorless.
Van Broughton Ramsey provides suitable period costumes, and David Lander lights the stage effectively enough, but Jeff Cowie’s set (apart from Will’s office, indicated merely by a desk and chair) provides an architecturally odd impression of the Kidders’ new home. It’s placed against neutral black curtains at either side, with a substantial window in the upstage wall, beneath which runs a slightly raised platform, with doors up several steps at either side.
Characters enter and leave via the sides, as well as through the doors, even going out one door and entering through the other despite being separated by an exterior yard seen through the window. At one point we even see two characters walking across the yard as they go from one room to another. Whatever the explanation for this arrangement, it’s definitely distracting.
Given the Signature’s devotion to Horton Foote, one of the iconic American playwrights whose work is embraced by this theatre, it’s disappointing to see a less-than-superior production of his sole Pulitzer-winning work.
Pershing Square Signature Center/Irene Diamond Theatre
480 W. 42nd St., NYC
Through December 15