‘Dividing the Estate’ to Survive in Hartford

Posted on March 6, 2009. Filed under: Foote Horton |

Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

Horton Foote’s “Dividing the Estate” is moving to Hartford.

Of the nine Broadway productions that closed this week, one is taking steps — some of them unusual — to revive itself for the Tony Awards and beyond, in spite of the current economic climate.

The new lease on life has been granted to “Dividing the Estate,” an acclaimed play by Horton Foote that began Off Broadway in 2007 and had a limited 10-week run on Broadway, which ended on Sunday. In May it will be transferring, largely intact, to Hartford Stage for five weeks. The producers and cast members said they hoped that the move would not only help Mr. Foote, who is 92, win his first Tony this June, but also interest other nonprofit theaters around the country in the production.

Hartford Stage will continue to pay the 13-member cast its Broadway-level salaries — about twice what it typically pays — and the current producer, Lincoln Center Theater, is providing the sets, costumes and scrim curtain to Hartford for only a nominal fee. The atypical arrangements also provide for five of the actors in “Dividing the Estate” to appear in a Hartford Stage production of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” adapted by Christopher Sergel, which will immediately precede the reopening of Mr. Foote’s play.

If the production does receive Tony nominations, which will be announced on May 5, Tony voters would have a second chance to see the play at Hartford Stage, where it is to reopen on May 28. Tony balloting ends on the evening of June 5.

Mr. Foote is a longtime favorite of the New York theater world; he won Academy Awards for his screenplays of “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “Tender Mercies” and a Pulitzer Prize for his play “The Young Man From Atlanta,” which was seen on Broadway in 1997. (“Young Man” was nominated for best play that year, but lost to Alfred Uhry’s “Last Night of Ballyhoo.”)

“It would be wonderful to win, of course,” Mr. Foote said at the closing-night party for “Dividing the Estate” at Sardi’s on Sunday. “But I have come not to expect such things.”

Michael Wilson, who is both the director of “Dividing the Estate” and the artistic director of Hartford Stage, said he hoped the show’s run there would win attention from theaters in Washington or Los Angeles that might be interested in a transfer — or even from producers in New York, for another run in the city.

The Broadway production of the play was always intended to be a limited run; its theater, the Booth, was already booked with the forthcoming musical “The Story of My Life,” which opens next month. Still, given the strong reviews for “Dividing the Estate,” Mr. Wilson and cast members said they had hoped to extend the run at the Booth, perhaps with “The Story of My Life” finding another theater or delaying its opening.

“The cast and I had several discussions — we wanted this to continue,” Mr. Wilson said. “And we concluded that, if we can’t be in New York, two hours away is not very far. But having it run to coincide with the Tony Awards made it all the better.”

“Dividing the Estate” stood out as an anomaly in the 2008-9 season: it was neither a revival of a well-known play with movie and television stars in major roles (as in the case of “Equus,” “Speed-the-Plow,” “The Seagull” and “All My Sons”), nor a new play with a famous actor who is known to theatergoers of all ages (the coming “33 Variations,” which stars Jane Fonda).

Nor was it particularly successful financially, though because Lincoln Center Theater is a nonprofit producer, financial success was not the primary object. (Lincoln Center Theater’s current smash, “South Pacific,” is generating plenty of income.)

Lincoln Center Theater allocated $2.3 million for “Dividing the Estate.” During the play’s run on Broadway, revenue from ticket sales exceeded expenses for 6 out of the 10 weeks, said Bernard Gersten, the executive producer of Lincoln Center Theater.

Mr. Gersten said the play also filled, on average, about 80 percent of its audience seats; according to weekly reported grosses, that was a higher percentage in some weeks than those for “Equus” and “Speed-the-Plow” (though those shows are in houses with more total capacity). Mr. Gersten said the production brought in a total of $200,000 more than its weekly operating expenses.

About 45 percent of “Dividing the Estate” tickets went to Lincoln Center Theater members (who are similar to subscribers, but have more flexibility than a typical subscriber arrangement allows in choosing shows to attend); they paid $40 to $50 per ticket, while the rest of the tickets were sold to the general public. In the run’s final week the average paid admission was $65.90.

“I thought ‘Dividing the Estate’ did quite well, from a financial perspective, but Lincoln Center is not in this to make money, and you couldn’t call the show a real moneymaker, per se,” Mr. Gersten said. “Its importance to us was the high quality of the writing and the heartfelt quality of the performances.”

Mr. Foote, whose first play, “Texas Town,” was produced Off Broadway in 1941, had a few more productions on Broadway in the 1940s and ’50s; since then he has been represented there only by “The Young Man From Atlanta” in 1997 and “Dividing the Estate” this winter.

In 2006 Signature Theater Company was eager to find a Broadway house for its production of Mr. Foote’s “Trip to Bountiful,” which was widely praised, especially for the performance of Lois Smith in the leading role. Going to Broadway was “a no-brainer,” said James Houghton, Signature’s artistic director, but the producers could not find a vacant theater.

That failure to move to Broadway, which would have made the play eligible for the Tonys, was a severe disappointment to some of those involved in the production; they said privately that Mr. Foote would have had a good shot at a Tony for best revival of a play, and Ms. Smith for leading actress.

“Dividing the Estate,” meanwhile, was a critical and popular Off Broadway hit in the fall of 2007 at Primary Stages; it was next to impossible to get a ticket for its limited run, once the reviews appeared. Among its admirers was André Bishop, Lincoln Center Theater’s artistic director, who in 2002 had worked with Mr. Foote on a production of his play “The Carpetbagger’s Children,” which Mr. Wilson also directed.

“We had a relationship with Horton,” Mr. Bishop said, “and I very much wanted to work with him again, and ‘Dividing the Estate’ seemed like a wonderful Broadway play, and so many people had been unable to see it Off Broadway.”

With the continuing run of “South Pacific” taking up the larger Vivian Beaumont Theater at Lincoln Center, and its sister theater, the Mitzi E. Newhouse, occupied with other productions, Mr. Bishop and Mr. Gersten turned to Midtown theaters as homes for productions of “Dividing the Estate” as well as for their coming revival of “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone” by August Wilson.

The team behind “Dividing the Estate” said it hoped that its efforts to keep the show alive would not only reward Mr. Foote with a Tony but also prove that the current recession is not a death knell for some plays.

“The economy is proving very bad for a lot of theaters, a lot of productions,” Mr. Gersten said, “so I’m even more proud that you just can’t kill this play of Horton’s.”

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