The Young Man from Atlanta by Horton Foote
The Pershing Square Signature Center
This week, I finished teaching a class on acting theory and practice at the “senior-peers” program I am involved in at The New School. One of the most rewarding comments from the participants in this peer-learning study group was that my class changed the way they will be watching acting in the NYC Theatre. That prompted a story from my days teaching at Antelope Valley College in Lancaster, California. One day, in my Introduction to Theatre class, a student asked whether I can enjoy a play with all the analysis that I do. I responded that if the production is good, the play affects me like anyone else. If it is not good, at least I have something to think about and analyze.
So, it was ironic that I had exactly that experience as I sat through the Signature Theatre revival of Horton Foote’s “The Young Man from Atlanta.” The 1995 Pulitzer Prize play is set in Houston in 1950, and it lives in the shadow of another, much more deserving Pulitzer winner, Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman.” Foote’s portrait of the failure of the American dream is about a life-long employee (now the COO) of a produce company who is replaced by a younger man that he trained. Rather than the lower-middle class environs of Miller’s masterpiece, Foote shows us a well-to-do executive, who lives beyond his means, facing the same disillusionment that drove Willie Loman to his end. But in spite of the differences in economic status, the two plays are very similar, except that one is a masterpiece and the other only makes you wish the playwright had a new and engaging take on American dreamers.
But instead Foote litters his play with WASP-ness in the 1950s. The former exec, Will, just built a mammoth home and has always given his wife, Lily Dale, everything she ever wanted. Not only do they have a loyal black housekeeper, but their former servant appears in the second act to tell the couple about her cherished memories of working “in someone else’s kitchen.” In a less than subtle reinvention of Willie Loman’s obsession with his sons, Foote’s Will and Lily Dale live with a constant pain that they might have failed their son who evidently committed suicide. Foote has several other plot twists, some unresolved, that might have engaged an audience if the Signature production had been up to its usual quality. It was not.
The acting was mediocre at best. Aidan Quinn as the fallen provider was one dimensional. He had a lot of brooding mixed with outrage, but never revealed anything about this character’s struggles. I am a great fan of Kristine Nielsen, but here she is miscast. She is well known for her comic roles; she can make you laugh simply with a look on her face. And usually her comedy is rich with reflection. Foote has written a sort of “past her time” Southern Belle in Lily Dale. Unfortunately, I felt that Ms. Nielsen got more laughs than Foote ever intended and, after repeatedly reminding the audience of her comic perfection, was incapable of getting the audience convinced by her emotional breakdowns. The rest of the cast’s performances were not worth talking about. However, Harriett D. Foy, a well-established character actor, made the most of the faithful and busy maid, even if Mr. Foote’s portrait of African Americans sometimes makes you cringe.
Director Michael Wilson did little to shape the production. Characters walked on- and off-stage seemingly with no consistent sense of the layout of this “very large” house. Mr. Wilson also seems to have left his actors with very little sense of believable interactions. He seems to have clearly selected effective character actors but never really shaped their characters, something that was at the core of Foote’s success. Even the set design made no sense. We are repeatedly told that this new house is among the costliest in Houston circa 1950. But the steps in the living room to the upper level are open-slabs and the railings are painted pipes. The set is meant to suggest three walls of the living room and some characters exit up the steps and through the doors at the back of the set. However, others simply walked off stage in either direction, not always in the same direction for the same destination. Sloppy!
Signature Theatre has a well-deserved reputation for excellent revivals of significant plays. They always bring a high standard of talent, values and resources to their productions, not to mention that they have managed, through generous benefactors, to keep their ticket prices at just $35. But significant plays can have significant weaknesses and Signature’s strength has been to show us the play’s strengths. This production lacks those strengths. But it certainly provided one more example of “how you enjoy a play” that I described to my college students old and new.