"Where were they off to?" asks Stella (Elizabeth Ashley) of her daughter Lucille (Penny Fuller) in the first scene of "Dividing the Estate." Stella is referring to her fleeing daughter-in-law, Olive Louise, and a drunken-man-not-her-husband. Answering her own question, Stella says they were off to "New York City to see some plays."
I wish that Horton Foote would write a drama about Olive Louise's flight to Broadway, and that Olive Louise would have the good fortune to be invited to an opening night as happy as last evening's gala celebration of "Dividing the Estate" at the Booth.
The merriment started well before the party itself got underway across the Booth at the Marriott Marquis. During intermission of the performance, the audience -- which included a variety of lively luminaries -- were buzzing about their own Texas roots (or lack of them) and how they connected to the world of Foote's fictional Harrison, Texas.
"No Texas-village roots for me," said actor James Lecesne, who not long ago gave a much-lauded performance in "I Am My Own Wife" at Hartford Stage, where "Dividing" helmer Michael Wilson is the artistic director. "And," Lecesne added with a laugh, in reference to the play's small-town bickerers not the actors playing them, "I'm not sure that's a bad thing.
Lecesne's friend, director/performer Eve Ensler ("The Vagina Monologues"), said, "This is such a good ensemble. If you don't have actors who can really PLAY this stuff, it would really collapse. They have the right people here."
Picking up that thread later, at the party, New York theater's Living National Treasure Marian Seldes told the production's very happy and deserving director, Mr. Wilson, "You really brought the good stuff out of the actors. Most important, the performances came from inside THEM. You'd never know in real-life they were sophisticated people."
I agreed inwardly with Miss Seldes as I heard that, but also wanted to respond that Gerald McRaney was born in a small Mississippi town, Elizabeth Ashley was born in a town in the Deep South part of Florida, and several of the cast come from Texas. In other words, they may live in New York or Los Angeles but small-town Southern voices are deep inside them.
The wardrobe at the party was decidedly big-city. I always look forward to the moment when the actresses of any cast shed their costumes and glam themselves up. No disappointments here. I was especially struck by the transformation of Penny Fuller from her shirtwaisted character Lucille to a woman in a slinky black dress. Ashley, meanwhile, may have been called "formidable" in the New York Times's boffo review of the production, but at the party she opted for a lighter, more festive spirit -- a baby feather-boa-like piece was wound round her neck. The other actresses in this mostly distaff cast -- Pat Bowie, Keiana Richard, Maggie Lacey, Hallie Foote, Jenny Dare Paulin, Nicole Lowrance, and Virginia Kull -- were equally beautiful. As for the event's male revelers, there were lots of bow ties.
As the party continued, it grew in volume -- a sign of cocktails helping to take the edge off of pre-opening jitters, and of a kick-back after food (southern in theme) was consumed. Eventually, word filtered in that the show had gotten several significant raves: more volume.
Before that point, though, the 92-year-old playwright himself, having done his media duties and accepted congratulations with a gracious smile, had exited the affair. He was the evening's truest star, the one who had perhaps most richly merited this trip to bountiful.
BRENDAN LEMON is the American theater critic for the Financial Times and the editor of lemonwade.com