The Pershing Square Signature Center
The Irene Diamond Stage
480 West 42nd St. between Tenth & Eleventh Aves.
Tuesday-Sunday through December 15, $35
In 1995, Horton Foote’s The Young Man from Atlanta premiered at the Signature Theatre as part of a season dedicated to the Texas native, which also included Talking Pictures, Night Seasons, and Laura Dennis. The play went on to earn the Pulitzer Prize and garner a Tony nomination for the two-time Oscar winner (who also won an Emmy in 1997). The Young Man from Atlanta is now back at the Signature, where it opened tonight at the Irene Diamond Stage in a revival directed by longtime Foote collaborator Michael Wilson that makes it hard to understand what all the fuss was about in the first place.
It’s the spring of 1950 in Houston, Texas, and sixty-one-year-old Will Kidder (Aidan Quinn) thinks he is living the American dream, rising from poverty to become a corporate success story who has just bought a large, expensive home. “There is no finer house in Houston. We have the best of everything,” he boasts to Tom Jackson (Dan Bittner), his handpicked protégé at the Sunshine Southern Wholesale Grocery. “I live in the best country in the world. I live in the best city. I have the finest wife a man could have, work for the best wholesale produce company,” he adds, but as it turns out, he and his wife, Lily Dale (Kristine Nielsen), are failing to face the reality that their carefully cultivated life is falling apart.
After thirty-seven years of dedicated service, Will is summarily dismissed by his boss, Ted Cleveland Jr. (Devon Abner), for being out of touch with the present. Six months before, Will and Lily Dale’s thirty-seven-year-old son and only child, Bill, drowned; while Will believes it might have been a suicide, the Bible-thumping Lily Dale steadfastly refuses to consider that possibility. The couple is being contacted nonstop by Bill’s Atlanta roommate, Randy Carter, who was a surprise visitor at Bill’s funeral. “He’s nervy. I’ll say that,” Will tells Tom early on. “He calls once a week to talk to me. God knows what he wants. Money, I suppose. Although he tells my secretary he just wants to stay in touch with Bill’s dad. Maybe next time he calls I’ll tell him just to keep the hell away from us.”
Will is furious when he finds out that Lily Dale has been sending Randy money, especially now that he needs cash to start his own business. But what’s left unsaid by everyone — including Lily Dale’s stepfather, Pete Davenport (Stephen Payne), and Pete’s great-nephew, Carson (Jon Orsini), who stayed at the same YMCA as Bill and Randy — is that it is very likely that Randy and Bill were lovers, but the words “gay” and “homosexual” are verboten in the Kidders’ seemingly idyllic existence (as well as in 1950s America). Will also has old-fashioned views on slavery; he claims that the Civil War was fought primarily over states’ rights, and when their current black maid, Clara (Harriett D. Foy), brings over one of their former black maids, Etta Doris (Pat Bowie), for a visit, Will has no memory of her whatsoever, even though she played a key role in Bill’s upbringing.
Wilson, who previously helmed such Foote plays as The Orphans’ Home Cycle, The Old Friends, The Trip to Bountiful, and The Carpetbagger’s Children, can’t inject any energy into the droll proceedings, which feel stagnant and repetitive as the same themes are reiterated over and over again. Quinn (A Streetcar Named Desire, Avalon) underplays Will, while two-time Obie winner and two-time Tony nominee Nielsen (Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus) overplays Lily Dale; her trademark jittery, nervous style is out of place here, calling too much attention to itself. (Foote fans might recognize some of the characters, as they appear in several parts of the Orphans plays.) Meanwhile, Payne (Straight White Men, Superior Donuts) struggles with the rhythm of his line readings, and the talented Orsini (The Nance, The Whirligig) doesn’t have enough to do. The best part of the show is Jeff Cowie’s set, which begins as a narrow, claustrophobic office before opening up into the elegant living room in the Kidders’ new house, which is now filled with so much hurt and pain.