Andrea Lynn Green and Jayne Houdyshell in Harrison, TX: Three Plays by Horton Foote” at Primary Stages through September 15. | JAMES LEYNSE
The illustrious Horton Foote, widely hailed as an “American Chekov,” was keen on exposing the tender, twisted bonds of family. So it is only fitting that his family members continue his legacy (he died at age 92 three years ago) by teaming up with Primary Stages to take on “Harrison, TX: Three Plays by Horton Foote.”
The playwright’s daughter, Hallie Foote, performs in two of the plays; her husband, Devon Abner, appears in two of them as well.
Skilled at writing for both stage and screen, Foote first gained fame a half-century ago for his Oscar-winning screenplay adaptation of Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird.” In 1995, he won the drama Pulitzer Prize for “The Young Man From Atlanta.” More recently, “Dividing the Estate” was such a hit that it transferred to Broadway. “The Orphans’ Home Cycle,” an epic set of plays spanning three decades, was staged by the Signature Theatre Company and was considered a stunning theatrical achievement.
“Harrison, TX” is a bundle of one-acts set in a one-horse town much like Foote’s boyhood Wharton, Texas. It’s the kind of place where down-home values rule, everyone knows everyone else’s business, and counting fireflies qualifies as an evening’s entertainment.
While these smaller pieces, written early in his career, might at first seem like disparate, minor scraps from his oeuvre, when served up together they make for quite a satisfying meal. Each story is packed with fully realized, vibrant characters. With only the town as a common thread, the audience is free to patch together the spaces between them.
The production is helmed by Pam MacKinnon, who nimbly led “Clybourne Park” to win the Best Play Tony Award earlier this year.
First up is “Blind Date,” a playful comedy set in 1928 in a spare but comfortable living room featuring Hallie Foote as the fussbudget Dolores, who has painstakingly arranged a date for her visiting niece, Sarah Nancy (Andrea Lynn Green). The problem is that the morose Sarah Nancy appears to have no interest in boys — no interest in anything, really.
Foote gives a masterful portrayal of this stern guardian, adding just enough warmth to earn our sympathy. When Dolores role-plays a list of questions and advises fake graciousness, we know she has her niece’s best interests at heart. “Boys, you know, need someone peppy to talk to,” she proclaims.
Green, on the other hand, lays on the sullenness so thick I was hoping for a little more nuance.
As the spirited suitor, Evan Jonigkeit brings a welcome burst of fresh air to the proceedings. His quick shifts from eager gamester to crushed reject to dutiful gentleman are wholly convincing — and charming. Devon Abner turns in a solid performance as Delores’ cranky, no-nonsense husband.
Set in the same year but with a very different tone is “The One-Armed Man,” a terse, dark drama centering on McHenry, a former laborer at the town’s cotton gin who lost an arm in the machinery. When he confronts his old employer, asking for his arm back, a cat-and-mouse game ensues that escalates to a shocking conclusion. While Alexander Cendese evokes a menacing, soulful McHenry, the play belongs to Jeremy Bobb as the tightfisted, morally bankrupt boss who gives him the brush-off and regrets it too late.
The third installment, “The Midnight Caller” is a beautifully rich one-act with so much depth and power it could easily stand on its own. The drama, set in a boarding house in 1952, chronicles the resulting chaos when two lonely misfits who don’t know each other –– a scandalized woman (Jenny Dare Paulin) and a divorced man (Jeremy Bobb) –– come to rent rooms there.
Standouts in the ensemble include Mary Bacon as the tightly wound, hypersensitive Alma Jean, who is quick to judge everyone and everything. It’s a pleasure to watch her harrumphing Alma Jean maintain her board-stiff posture as she tromps up the stairs at the slightest provocation. Jayne Houdyshell (a crowd-pleasing Broadway Baby in the recent “Follies” revival) seems quite at home in Foote territory. She’s magnificent as the dream-filled spinster lodger who regrets spending her life on the sidelines. And of course, Hallie Foote is spot-on as the mother-hen proprietor of the house.
Although the run of “Harrison, TX” ends September 15, the Foote family tradition will live on. The following week, Primary Stages premieres “Him,” a drama about siblings trying to please their father. It was written by Foote’s other daughter, Daisy, and features — who else? — her sister Hallie.
HARRISON, TX: THREE PLAYS BY HORTON FOOTE | Primary Stages | 59E59 Theaters | 59 E. 59th St. |Through Sep. 15 | Tue.-Thu. at 7 p.m.; Fri-Sat. at 8 p.m.; Sat. at 2 p.m.; Sun. at 3 p.m. | $70; primarystages.org or 212-279-4200