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NY Theater Reviews

Hallie Foote and Elizabeth Ashley/Ph: Joan Marcus



Horton Foote's  last play may have brought him a late-life triumph, but its comic intent comes packed with tragic subtext.

Anyone who has suffered through the loss of a parent and the ensuing purgatory of probate will find few revelations in the late Horton Foote's final play, Dividing the Estate, which has been moved essentially intact from Broadway to the home territory of director Michael Wilson. The one casting change -Lois Smith  replacing Elizabeth Ashley - seems salutary: Smith gleams with mischievous glee every time Stella, the Texas matriarch, considers revising her will. It's the only power left to an old woman boxed in by the march of progress - the family's gracious manse (well captured by scenic designer Jeff Cowle) is is now bordered by fast-food franchises - and beset by greedy offspring.

What's shocking is how forthright her adult children - Lucille (an underutilized Penny Fuller), Lewis (Gerald McRainey), and Mary Jo (Hallie Foote, the playwright's real-life daughter) - are in making their aspirations known. Though the play is set - like other Foote works - in the fictional town of Harrison, Texas, we're deep in Chekhov territory here. What is the doddering lifelong servant Doug (Arthur French ) if not a stand-in for The Cherry Orchard's  Firs? The big difference is that these victims of ever-reducing circumstances don't talk in code, but in concrete figures. They want what's Acoming to them, preferably sooner rather than later, and they express their expectations quite callously, considering what that "later" will entail.

Also surprising, in Foote's script, is the antiquated image of racial relations (three happy-to-serve African-American retainers, as of the late '80s?) and the ignorance of Stella's Houston wheeler-dealer son-in-law Bob (James DeMarse, who lends the assemblage some much-needed vitality) concerning the typical terms of probate. This production also suffers from problems of scale, which perhaps will dissipate later in the run. French's old man' s palsy, for instance, might have read well in the back rows of the Booth, but in Hartford Stage's modest space, it looks like bad actor shorthand for senility. Similarly, Hallie Foote's fist-pumping walk when peeved - she looks like a wind-up toy - seems cartoonish, a move too calculated to prompt an easy laugh.

Again, if you've lived through this particular progression - a parent's  decline in both health and fortune - none of the proceedings may strike you as especially comic.