A splendid play happens offstage during Horton Foote's Pulitzer-winning The Young Man from Atlanta, now running at Uptown Players at the Kalita Humphreys Theater. If only the action out front were as entertaining as the stuff we never see.
Throughout this static little drama, the latest entry in the ongoing DFW Foote Festival, members of the uptight Kidder household of 1950 Houston recount conversations and events they've experienced elsewhere. In the next scene, they'll go over the same ground again and again. It's a confounding Mobius strip of a play that keeps circling back in on itself but going nowhere.
The Young Man from Atlanta, like so many Horton Foote scripts, is a patchwork of meandering conversations about money and the greedy relatives who want some. In this case, the palavering is among characters who aren't as interesting as the people they're talking about. On and on the Kidders and their kin blather to each other, digressing frequently, footnoting their talk with shorthanded references to family scandals and the minutiae of long lives shared under one roof.
This is also the framework, of course, of the much better Dividing the Estate, Foote's comic masterpiece about a big Texas family, their dwindling riches and unbridled greed. The Dallas Theater Center's impeccably cast production at the Wyly Theatre downtown runs through April 9 and it's the one to see to appreciate the best of Foote. At least in Estate, key moments unfold in front of you, performed by actors acutely tuned to the peculiar patois of a roomful of born-and-bred Texans fighting tooth and claw over who's going to get what and how much.
What seems to be going on outside the dull living room of the Kidders, the shattered Houston family at the center of The Young Man from Atlanta, is far more intriguing than anything onstage. Will Kidder (played by T.A. Taylor) and wife Lily Dale (Lucia A. Welch) swap suspicions about unseen grifters, crooked businessmen, possible suicides and some local African-American household help who may have conspired with Eleanor Roosevelt to punish rich white ladies by not showing up for work. The much-talked-about title character never appears at all, though he does get as close as the front driveway.
The Kidders are at a now-familiar crossroads. Will, age 64, has been let go from his job of 40 years at a Houston wholesale grocery firm. He's overspent on a new mid-century modern home (the set by Andy Redmon makes the best use of the Kalita's revolve of any Uptown show yet) and to pay their bills, Will is counting on Lily Dale to refund some hefty Christmas checks he's handed her over the years. But that money's gone, Lily Dale tells him, given to a young man from Atlanta who used to share a boardinghouse room with the Kidders' now-dead son Bill. It's 1950 and the implication is that Bill was gay, though it's never clearly stated. The friend has soaked Lily Dale for about 50 thou by telling her sob stories. Is he a con artist? Blackmailer? Or is he a compassionate, suffering life partner who wants to talk to grieving parents about the true circumstances of Bill's death?
Lily Dale's stepfather, Pete (the marvelous character actor Gordon Fox), lives with the Kidders and tunes out Lily Dale's nattering. Pete has a bunch of money saved, but he's being pumped for cash by a handsome, persuasive grand-nephew (Blake Blair) and doesn't want to hand any of the loot to Will. When Will has a heart episode, it's yet another blow to the Kidders' status quo. In 1950, the era of young men in gray flannel suits stepping on each other to succeed without really trying, an old guy with health and money probs wouldn't be welcomed back onto the executive fast track.
Director Marianne Galloway and her cast mine the 1995 script for as many pliable, playable moments as they can find. There are not enough to make the production worth seeing, however. It's a snoozer—a long 90 minutes with no intermission. The performances tilt too often toward maudlin emotions too, especially T.A. Taylor, doing a blustery Pat Hingle thing as Will Kidder. Welch, looking as prim and retentive as Laura Bush, has little to do but perch on the edge of the sofa and replay Lily Dale's worries about shoveling heaps of cash to the young you-know-who from you-know-where.
In throwaway roles, Tippi Hunter and Yolanda Williams play maids who pop in to address rumors of "Disappointment Clubs" of black help who stood up to their white employers in Houston in the FDR era. (That's a storyline that might have made a better play than the one about the dead son.) And why write in a secretary (Amanda Denton) who has only one line? And a boss (Stan Graner) who fires Will and disappears into the play behind the play?
As the rueful up-and-comer who usurps Will's job and unwittingly sends the family into a downward spiral, Kevin Moore uses a moonlight-and-magnolias accent that's out of place. The title has "Atlanta" in it, but the characters are Texans living in Houston. New rule for the rest of the Foote fest: You're all Texas actors in plays set in Texas. Just speak normally.
Even if you could afford to fly to London to catch the National Theatre's current smash hit production of Frankenstein, you wouldn't be able to snag a ticket. It's sold out through the end of the run. See it instead for $20 at the Angelika movie theaters in Dallas and Plano this month in the ongoing NT Live series beamed by satellite to screens around the world.
Directed by Danny Boyle, the filmmaker behind Trainspotting, Slumdog Millionaire and 127 Hours, this new Frankenstein, adapted by Nick Dear from Mary Shelley's 1818 novel, stars Jonny Lee Miller and Benedict Cumberbatch, doing astonishing work alternating in the roles of young scientist Victor Frankenstein and his Creature. In a violent, literate, sexy retelling, the focus falls on the Creature, first seen being born naked from a glowing cocoon. The first 15 minutes are the Creature alone, bloody stitches joining unmatched cadaver parts. He flops and staggers around the large stage at the National, a man-infant discovering his new world. (The cameras provide close-ups and overhead shots but still retain the effect of one continuous evening of live theater. You even hear the audience coughing and rustling programs, and hear them roar at the curtain call.)
A performance with Cumberbatch playing the Creature and Miller as Victor was screened last month. (I saw it and loved it in an audience packed with Dallas and Fort Worth theater directors, including DTC's Kevin Moriarty, Stage West's Jim Covault and Amphibian Stage Productions' Kathleen Culebro.)
With the actors in the opposite roles, Frankenstein's March 24 London performance can be seen here at 7 p.m., April 13 and 14 at the Angelika Dallas; and at 2 p.m., April 17, and 7 p.m., April 19 at the Angelika Plano. Tickets ($20 general seating) can be ordered online at http://angelikafilmcenter.com or purchased at the box office.
The next in the NT Live series will be the National's upcoming production of Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard starring Zoe Caldwell, due to hit screens this summer.