Horton Foote began writing The Old Friends
in 1963 or ’64, as a sort of sequel to his early play, Only the Heart. Between ’64 and Foote’s death in 2009, something like 30 of his new plays saw full productions. The Old Friends never did. There’s a reason for that.
You expect Foote to be serious, big-hearted, maybe wholesome. The Old Friends, at least as staged at the Pershing Square Signature Center, is campy. The camp comes honestly, accidentally, and its incongruity in small-town Footeian Texas is sometimes delightful. But it’s weird.
Here we have broke, widowed Sibyl Borden, played with grace and restraint by the playwright’s daughter, Hallie Foote, returning to the teensy town of Harrison to resume the quiet, dignified life she left behind three decades ago. But that old life is irretrievable. Between her and it is a thicket of in-laws and old friends, all rich or scheming to get rich, most of them bonelessly drunk. The few who aren’t dissolute are either senile or as poor as Sibyl. Few of them are friendly, all of them are needy, and none of them will let Sibyl get any peace.
The relationships between Foote’s characters are deep, complex, and tedious to hear about. (Nevertheless, during intermission in the Signature’s fabulous lobby bar, I tried unsuccessfully to make a chart of them) It doesn’t matter. The fun of The Old Friends has nothing to do with its characters’ tangled pasts and everything to do with seeing them as they are now, drinking till they’re blind and raging till they collapse.
Watch especially the great Betty Buckley as Gertrude, the rawest, raunchiest, and richest woman in Harrison. Gertrude thinks her money entitles her to whatever she wants, but what she wants is (of course) the one thing not for sale. So she rages, or cajoles, or flirts, or begs, or apologizes, and she does this so hugely, and flits between postures so rapidly, that I perceived her less as a character than as a sort of anthropomorphic, perfumed tornado. I get the sense that Foote wanted us to feel bad for her, but I couldn’t. Buckley was having too much fun devouring the scenery to elicit from me anything but sympathetic glee. It was wrong, but it was excellent.