09/13/2013 02:39 pm ET Updated Nov 13, 2013

Aisle View: Foote's Vicious Friends

There are skeletal walls in the three sets in The Old Friends, Horton Foote's posthumously-produced "new" play which the folks at Signature Theatre have happily favored us with. This see-through framing is typically a design choice, or sometimes indicative of budgetary constraints. In this case, director Michael Wilson and producer James Houghton probably figured that after three weeks of previews the cast would surely have chomped their way through the walls, anyway.

There is chomping of the highest order on view in this latest outing from the Foote-dedicated company on 42nd Street. Lillian Hellman, just before Foote started his career, wrote an Alabama-based play called The Little Foxes. This one, set in Foote's fictional Harrison, Texas, could well be called "The Little Crocodiles." Once upon a time, Veanne Cox's father sold out his partner and "old friend," Hallie Foote's father, and took all the land, money and diamonds he could grab. Veanne is in fierce competition with her old friend, the equally alcoholic but even wealthier Betty Buckley, a recent widow who has set her sights on her former brother-in-law Cotter Smith. Who, as it turns out, was thirty-years back engaged to Hallie, who broke it off in a moment of pique to marry Veanne's brother -- an outright failure who, as the play opens, drops dead. Overseeing it all is the aged and infirm Lois Smith, Veanne's mother and Hallie's mother-in-law.

Yes, all of them have proper character names; but it is not the characters who make The Old Friends a vodka-laced genteel slugfest, it's the actors.

Buckley is (not surprisingly) the most ferocious, as the ultra-wealthy widow who uses alcohol as a crutch and money as a power tool. Her performance culminates in a wild mad scene, where she all but destroys one of those wall-less sets. (During the subsequent scene-change, at least one audience member wondered whether this is what the famously difficult Buckley's dressing room might look like on a bumpy night.) Cox -- best known as a comedienne with a delightfully offkilter edge -- demonstrates that she can also be ferociously malevolent. She glides around the stage using not only land and diamonds as weapons, but the one element that her old friend and wary competitor Buckley can't provide: sex.

We might normally expect to see the playwright's daughter Hallie in one of these roles, but she has here opted to play the decent daughter-in-law. In the process, she keeps the play from floating off into the ridiculous. The octogenarian Smith, who gave an incandescent performance in the Signature's 2005 production of Foote's The Trip to Bountiful, is fragile and heartbreaking as the mother displaced by her rapacious daughter and vile son-in-law. Until, that is, they feed her three or four "sweet drinks" in the big alcoholic Act II bustup, and she becomes as funny as the rest of them.

The men have somewhat less to do, but Mr. Smith manages extremely well. (It was not until glancing at the program during intermission that I realized this was the same actor I saw twice, last year, giving a strong and very different performance as the father in Mike Bartlett's Cock over at the Duke.) Adam LeFevre as Veanne's hateable husband seems a bloated mass in a chair for most of the play, until he convincingly explodes in the final scenes. Hidden away in the small role of Ms. Smith's cook is Novella Nelson, who delivered a memorable performance 40-odd years ago as Cleavon Little's "Down Home" sister in Purlie.

If the acting company and director Wilson give us a Texas-size whale of a time, the play itself is not quite up to standards. Consider an accomplished playwright with sixty-plus plays under his belt, along with a Pulitzer and two Oscars (for To Kill a Mockingbird and Tender Mercies, the latter of which featured Ms. Buckley). When he spends forty years writing, revising, and rewriting a play, one suspects that he doesn't quite have a handle on what he intends it to be. Foote started The Old Friends in 1963, incorporating characters from the 1944 play with which he made his Broadway debut. The piece underwent an exploratory staging in 1982, was given a developmental reading in 2002 -- the cast headed by Buckley and Hallie -- and left unproduced upon the playwright's death in 2009.

So let us admit that The Old Friends is not Foote at his best, dramaturgically speaking. Buckley, Cox, Hallie Foote and the others make it a gleeful slice of malevolence, though, while handily illustrating that "old friends" -- in Harrison, Texas, at least -- are by far the most lethal.