Horton hears a who-gets-the-money

By Jerry Tallmer

‘Dividing the Estate’ is an astonishing family affair

Blink, he was 91.  Blink, he’s now 92. Imagine living 92 years to get the best reviews you ever had in your life.

Something of a triumph, Horton – yes? Must be nice.

“Well, it looks like it,” said Horton Foote, possessor of Oscar (twice) and Pulitzer and Tony and Obie and Lortel and every other conceivable theatrical award over all these years, but never before of the ecstatic raves on all sides for “Dividing the Estate,” a play he wrote back in 1987 which has now – a year after its New York debut Off-Broadway – arrived on Broadway as a Lincoln Center/Primary Stages production at the Booth.

And a lot has happened in that year. The bottom has dropped out of not just the U.S. economy but the global economy, making “Dividing the Estate” – a tinder box of hungry, impatient heirs in the already disintegrating gulf area of Texas of the 1980s – even more relevant than a year ago. Stores gone, movie theater gone, Main Street deserted, real-estate collapsed, oil industry in turmoil, the local landscape a squalor of fruit stands and fast-food joints. And all this before Houston was hit by Hurricane Ike.

If you listen hard at the Booth you will hear the word depression whip by – these people are talking, remember, way back in 1987 – and not long later the news of, yes, a foreclosure.

“That’s right,” said Horton. “It’s like the whole world collaborated” – in giving his play a yet deeper, sharper dimension than it already had a year ago. “I had nothing to do with it,” the naïve-as-a-fox 92-year-old dryly tacks on – this Wharton, Texas, born-and-bred playwright who had first reached New York as an aspiring young actor in the heart of the Great Depression of the 1930s, but still goes home to Wharton, 55 miles from Houston, whenever he can.

“I remember the Depression pretty well,” Horton says. “I wanted to go to acting school, which even then was looked down on as a waste of time. But my father took the last thing he had to sell – his house – he got $3,000 for it – to send me to the Pasadena Playhouse in California.

“This has been a long time coming,” he says of the play, the production, the direction by Michael Wilson, and, most especially, the critical huzzahs. “Whatever it takes to make something work, it works here.”

One of the things that makes it work is, in a matchless ensemble company, Horton’s daughter Hallie Foote as Mary Jo, the hungriest, snappiest of the assembled offspring of imperious Stella Gordon (Elizabeth Ashley, also terrific – well, they all are), who is not going to go gentle into that dark night.

The transition of “Dividing the Estate” from Off-Broadway to Broadway was pain-free, uneventful, “except what had to be done for the extra space.”

Sure, he was in on the casting, first to last, un-changed from last year’s Primary Stages production to now.

They are all perfect: Penny Fuller as Stella’s other, tamer daughter; Gerald McRaney (a television star whom Horton had never heard of) in pure brilliant underplaying control as Stella’s messed-up 50-year-old son; Arthur French as the fussbudget old black man who has always been part of this family; Devon Abner (Hallie Foore’s real-life husband) as the grandson named Son who has spent his life holding the estate together – and who delivers the line that stops the show with a roar from the audience when he suggests as a way out of their financial catastrophe: “Let’s not sell the estate … We can all live here together.”

Horton has heard that roar at that line before, when, starting in 1987, “Dividing the Estate” was done in theaters all over the country but not New York City, and then at last when it got to Off-Broadway – “but not like this, not as loud as this, so many people” in the seats on Broadway.

It is Son’s schoolteacher fiancée, the politically correct Pauline (Maggie Lacey), who already has talked about how the new Korean and Vietnamese families in Houston all live and work together. Mary Jo’s tart response: “Well, I’m neither Korean nor Taiwanese, thank you.”

No playwright has ever drawn more from life than Horton Foote/ “All my things,” he has said, “are based on people. I mix them up.” In this play, strong-willed, memory-muddled Stella Gordon in particular “is a composite.”

Of relatives of yours, Horton?

“Could be.”

Are any of the generation in the play still alive down there?

“Yeah.” Pause. “Could be my age; could be older.” Pause. “Good honest well-meaning people, got off the track somewhere.”

One of the most quietly astonishing elements in “Dividing the Estate” is this privileged white Texan family’s inclusion and emotional embrace of Doug Alexander, the 90-year-old quasi-servant heartbreakingly played by French.

That, too, is based on an actual such case in the Wharton where Horton grew up.

“Well,” says the playwright, “”it’s only unusual in the sense that I didn’t know anyone else who did it. I didn’t pay any attention to it. Just thought it was what you do.”

Quick logical jump:  Horton, are you happy about Obama?

“Yeah. But I have to tell you, I was a great supporter of Hillary.” Pause. “When she made her peace with Obama, I made my peace with Obama.”

He’s been working on, is still at work on, a new play about a tax assessor who’s sorry for the people he assesses.

Its title? “The Tax Assessor.” Is it slated for production? “I hope so. But I’ve had many things I’ve done that never got done.”

Soaring rent finally drove Horton out of the far-west Horatio Street apartment in which he and his wife, the late Lillian Valish, lived for many years. Horton, daughter Hallie, and son-in-law Devon Abner now have a place together in Pacific Palisades, California.

The current producers of “Dividing the Estate” – Lincoln Center and Primary Stages – have provided the Footes with a pied-a-terre in the West 40s. “I’ve never seen any play anywhere get this kind of reviews,” says Horton, wjo has dug in for the duration.

So how long do you figure to be in New York, Horton?

Poker-faced: “About five years.” By then he’ll only be 97.

DIVIDING THE ESTATE. By Horton Foote. Directed by Michael Wilson. A Lincoln Center/Primary Stages production at the Booth Theater, 222 West 45th Street, (212) 239-6200.