REVIEW: Signature’s The Young Man From Atlanta Doesn’t Put a Foote Right

Kristine Nielsen and Aidan Quinn in The Young Man From Atlanta. (Photo by Monique Carboni)

Horton Foote, who died in 2009 at age 92, was a much-revered American writer of theater and screenplays, whose numerous awards include the National Medal of Arts, two Oscars, and a Pulitzer for The Young Man From Atlanta. Seeing the opening minutes of this play in Signature’s current revival, sensitive theater-goers might well wonder why. 

Bursting with pride about his new house, finished just days ago, successful businessman Will Kidder—still a force of nature at 61—can’t resist bragging to Tom Jackson, his junior colleague:

“It’s a beauty, if I do say so myself. Of course, it cost me a pretty penny… I’d guess well over two hundred thousand. But it’s worth it. There’s no finer house in Houston. We have the best of everything.” 

And then, immediately following:

“Excuse me, fellow. I just got a little short of breath there for a moment… Truth is I have a slight heart condition. Nothing serious the doctor said. I just have to use common sense and not overdo, the doctor said.” 

Ahem. This is Exposition, Foreshadowing, and Metaphor 101, driven home with all the nuance of a sledgehammer. Do I need to tell you that within minutes, all that seems so perfect in Kidder’s world will come crashing down? I didn’t think so. 

I wish I could say that YMFA gets better, and in some ways, it does. It also gets worse.

While Will’s fall from the heights of business success is a significant plot point here (one that more than slightly borrows from Death of a Salesman), the real theme of YMFA is the devastating impact on Will and his wife, Lily Dale, of the drowning death of their son Bill, which occurred six months earlier. Will confides to Tom that he’s sure Bill committed suicide—after all, Bill never learned how to swim, yet he deliberately walked into a lake. What other explanation makes sense?

But Will hasn’t shared these conclusions with the still deeply grieving Lily Dale, who probably wouldn’t believe them anyway. Lily Dale instead takes comfort in secret meetings with Bill’s former roommate, to whom she has also given considerable sums of money. 

Surely by now you, dear reader—and the entire theater audience—will have deciphered what Will and Lily Dale cannot or will not accept: that Bill was gay. 

Written in 1995 but set in 1950, one would like to believe that the “love that dare not speak its name” icky-ness in Foote’s play is an attempt to capture and critique the historical prejudices of its time. But I wonder. The playwright’s attitude toward Bill’s mysterious and unseen “roommate”—presumably he’s the Young Man From Atlanta—is cloaked in negative stereotyping and judgment. 

What I hear in the playwright’s voice is disapproval barely kept in check—a kind of “more to be pitied than censured” finger-wagging. Ultimately, what Foote gives us is both pity and censure. What else could we make of this mythical boarding house, which as described sounds like a den of iniquity, populated entirely by gay con artists?

Compounding the hokum is a prolonged scene in the living room which could not feel more contrived and artificial, nor more steeped in American drama clichés (Will, ranting and raving; Lily, attempting to placate him and calling him “Daddy.”)

Nor does director Michael Wilson find a way to anchor Signature’s YMFA in any coherent tonal world, starting with his calamitously mismatched pair of leads. Aidan Quinn (Will Kidder) doesn’t have the outsized personality or bravado of Rip Torn, who played Will in the 1997 Broadway production. Quinn’s moments of yelling have the embarrassing feel of directorial overlay that simply isn’t working for this particular actor. What he does have is considerable charm, likeability, and emotional connectedness.

When Quinn is quiet, he’s often wonderful. But here, he’s playing opposite Kristine Nielsen, whose grandstanding, exaggerated delivery channels the bigger-than-life comedic persona that has worked so well for her in the dark comedies of Christopher Durang and Taylor Mac. 

It certainly doesn’t work here. For long stretches, it’s unclear whether Wilson’s production of YMFA is meant to be sincere, or if it’s a sly attempt to turn it into parodic comedy. I can think of some difficult, abstract plays where such ambiguity and confusion would be interesting. But in this ploddingly earnest and dated piece of realism, it’s hard to imagine a bigger mistake.

In Act II, we finally have a moment where YMFA finds its voice. Etta Doris Meneffree, the frail and elderly former maid of the Kidders (Pat Bowie, giving the show’s best performance by far), has taken a long bus trip to see them for the first time in decades. Clearly and embarrassingly, this visit means more to her than it does to them.

But it’s also evident that Etta Doris has not come simply to offer condolences on the death of Bill, whom she remembers as a beautiful little boy, nor to nostalgically evoke a happy past. She is here to hold Will and Lily accountable for not allowing Bill to flourish and develop his own identity.

Faintly legible in this scene is a darker, angrier, and more interesting play, one which would indeed be worth reviving. But in Wilson’s production, even this scene is soft-focused, neutering its point. 

If you see YMFA, you’ll know what I mean when I say that you can count me in as a charter member of the Horton Foote Disappointment Club. 


The Young Man From Atlanta runs through December 15th. For more information, visit the Signature Theatre website.

Categories: Criticism, New York, Theater

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