Perhaps the holiday season isn't the best time to catch Dividing the Estate, a vicious new comedy about a money-grubbing Texas clan. The thought of spending time with your own unbearable relations after being trapped for over two hours with playwright Horton Foot's unbearable creations doesn't bode well for holiday cheer.
As family members parade in and out of matriarch Stella's (Elizabeth Ashley) rambling old house, all of them have one thing on their minds: money. Grandson Son (Devon Abner) is at pains to keep the family estate profitable; Stella's only son Lewis (Gerald McRaney) wants to borrow even more of it, and Stellas daughter Mary Jo (Hallie Foote) can't talk about anything else. Even the withered old family retainer Doug (Arthur French) keeps asking Stella to buy him an elegant tombstone when he finally dies.
The grim reaper does eventually come to call, but even that doesn't stop the endless money talk. And what's so funny and infuriating about Foote's play is the gimlet-eye with which he has captured the line Southerners straddle regarding financial conversations. On the one hand, talking about money and salaries is impolite. But then again, company manners have a way of disappearing among family members, especially family members as vicious and backbiting as these.
And that's both the beauty and the problem with Foote's script. Your tolerance for listening to an endless conversation about who is making what (Mary Jo even insists on finding out how much Doug still makes) and how much everyone can expect to inherit when Stella dies will have an immediate affect on your enjoyment of Dividing the Estate. And if you're fortunate enough not to count a Mary Jo among your own relations, then your chances of laughing non-stop immediately increase.
But the play, so sure-footed in the first act of remembered stories and gossip tinged with Southern Gothic, falls apart halfway through the second. Both Foote and director Michael Wilson have amped up the tension to an explosive climaxbut the play just keeps going. And going and going and going, eventually introducing a new character in the play's final moments. By the time Mary Jo says she'll be praying on bended knee for the fifth time, nothing about Dividing the Estate is funny or charming. Instead, the venal, grasping characters have been revealed as lacking any redeeming qualities, and the few genuinely considerate members of the family (including Son and his mother) come across as weak and docile.
The acting is never less than pitch-perfect, especially from Ashley, and Penny Fuller and Foote as Stella's daughters. Foote, in particular, never ventures far enough away from Mary Jo to judge her. Instead, she burnishes her character's faults to a blinding gleam, wringing laughs from almost every line she uttersthough Mary Jo never merely speaks when she can whine or shriek. But the laughs come at the cost of listening to a grown woman demand what she doesn't deserve, and ultimately Dividing the Estate may turn out to be a play best suited for sibling-less orphans.
Thru Jan. 4. Booth Theater, 222 W. 45th St. (betw. Bway & Eighth Ave.), 212-239-6200; $71.50-$96.50.