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Taking life (and Broadway) at a leisurely pace

THEATER

December 07, 2008|CHARLES McNULTY | THEATER CRITIC

NEW YORK — Horton Foote is sitting patiently in an orchestra seat at the Booth Theatre on Broadway before a Wednesday matinee of "Dividing the Estate." He's waiting to be interviewed but seems content just to stare at the set of the genteel family residence, the source of his economically strapped characters' squabbling and backbiting.

There's a look of concern on his face, but ask him what he's thinking about and he'll say he's just amazed by his good fortune. "I can't get over the fact that I can go into many places in New York, and people know who I am," he says. "I never really know who I am myself. I'm impressed by that."

At 92, Foote cuts a gentlemanly figure of somber serenity. Elegantly bundled in a sweater and overcoat, he exudes an uncommon grace and compassion for someone who has survived as long as he has in the treacherous shoals of the American theater. If there are scars, he isn't flaunting them. Talking to him one-on-one amid sound checks and other distractions, you can feel his vision concentrating on you, absorbing your peculiar individuality the way an animal lover will stop and stare at a strange cat walking through a garden. Yet his gaze seems on loan from the higher precincts of memory and imagination, the forces that have combined in him to produce a distinguished body of work that has grown only richer with time.

This is Foote's first play on Broadway since his Pulitzer Prize-winning "The Young Man From Atlanta" in 1997. But you wouldn't know it from his manner, which is as steady, sensitive and slyly humorous as any of his dramas that have chronicled the hope and heartbreak of that little corner of Texas he long ago rechristened "Harrison." (As literary ZIP Codes go, Harrison, Texas, is as well-mapped as Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County.)

"When I first tried writing a play, I was so naive I didn't know that you couldn't use the actual names," Foote recalls. "So I wrote a one-act called 'Wharton Dance' and used all of my friends' names. Some of them were doing things their parents didn't know they did. No one told me that you couldn't do this. I thought they'd be delighted, but they weren't delighted, so I quickly changed the name of Wharton to Harrison."

From Texas to Pasadena

The cadences of Foote's sentences are those of a storyteller who respects his material too much to sensationalize it or rush it along. Listening to him talk is a little like sitting beside a brook that flows at its own leisurely pace, quietly transporting earthly life in its flow. When asked if he sees the rhythm of his plays as a corrective to the hyped-up barrage of modern life, he pauses courteously to consider before conceding, "I'm not aware of that mission, but I am aware that my plays have a certain tone."

That tone stems from his small-town Gulf Coast-area beginnings. His father owned a clothing store in Wharton, a tight-knit community where everyone knew more than one another's name. A year out of high school, amid the Great Depression, Foote headed out west to the theater school at Pasadena Playhouse. He was determined to realize his dream of becoming an actor, which took hold of him in his early adolescence.

"My parents liked the idea of Pasadena because they thought it would be a very safe place to study, and it was away from Broadway and New York," he says with soft, nostalgic laughter.

Just a few years later, this young man from Texas would become a New Yorker and a founding member of the American Actors Company, where the dancer and choreographer Agnes de Mille, who had been doing improvisational exercises with him, encouraged him to begin writing. These disciplines of acting and writing were in rivalry for a time, until a review helped him clarify which path to choose.

"Brooks Atkinson was the dean of the New York critics, and he came down to see my play 'Texas Town,' and for some reason he liked it very much," Foote recalls. "He loved all the acting, except for one: me. I was playing the lead. 'Well,' I said to myself, 'I'll show him. I'll never write again, and I'll become such a good actor that I'll make him ashamed of what he wrote.' But then we went away for the summer, and the desire to act left me as mysteriously as it had arrived."

His apprenticeship as a playwright officially began. "If you read Atkinson's review, you'd think I knew what I was doing, but I didn't. I went to Agnes and said, 'I'm stymied here.' And she said, 'Write about what you know,' and whether for good or bad, that's what I've been doing."

When pressed on the subject of the relationship between fact and fiction in his plays, he offers no more than "I'm a storyteller. I don't know what my method is. I only know that if material fascinates me, I'll go to the ends of the Earth to do it. That's really been the secret."

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