17 September 2016

'A Day by the Sea'

My sense about plays that have been forgotten or neglected has always been—and I’ve seldom been proved wrong—that most have been so for an excellent reason: they’re not very good.  (I wrote about this impression on ROT in “Vanity, Thy Name Is Actor-Director,” posted on 22 September 2011.)  It’s exceedingly rare, I’ve found, that an overlooked gem is discovered.  (I’m thinking of Paul Osborn’s Morning’s at Seven, which was originally produced on Broadway in 1939 and then found a new audience in 1980 and ran in revival for 580 performances, winning three Tonys and five Drama Desk Awards.  A 2002 revival ran another 132 performances.)

Jonathan Bank of the Mint Theater Company, which specializes in reviving old plays, has complained that the “classic plays that are produced all the time in U.S. theaters . . . are always the same dozen or so.”  Leaving aside that Bank is speaking of “classics”—he specifies “Four Chekhovs”—not merely “oldies” (golden or otherwise), I dispute that there are only a “dozen or so.”  To begin with, there are five full-length Chekhov plays (including Ivanov) that are often staged, six if you count The Wood Demon, and a slew of popular one-acts.  Then there are the works of Barrie, Büchner, Gogol, Gorky, Ibsen, Jarry , Maeterlinck, Pinero, Rostand, Shaw, Strindberg, Wedekind, and Wilde—and that’s just the 19th century, like Chekhov, and some of the better-known writers.  Come forward into the 20th century, even just up to the ’50s, and there are scores of standards and modern classics that are popular with both theaters and audiences.  (Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s The Front Page from 1928 is about to get a limited Broadway run; 1939’s The Little Foxes by Lillian Hellman is coming to the Manhattan Theatre Club in the spring.)  So, from my perspective, Bank is wrong to start with.  He’s deliberately understating the truth for the sake of argument.  What I suspect he really means is that the old plays that are commonly produced on American stages aren’t the obscure, forgotten scripts he likes.  As to that, I refer everyone back to my opening assertion.

None of this means I don’t like old plays, because I do.  I have criteria that are apparently higher than Bank’s, however.  So when Diana, my frequent theater companion, suggested we catch the Mint’s revival of N. C. Hunter’s A Day by the Sea (1953) at the end of last month, I had my doubts because of my past experiences with the troupe.  The choice was Diana’s, however, and I deferred to her inclination.  (Neil Genzlinger’s rave review appeared in the New York Times the day before Diana and I saw Day, and that also made me belay my instincts.)  It turns out that my intuition, if not my decision, was right.  I also found that the ability I often have to discern whether a show will be good or bad from a publicity blurb—or, when I was acting, a casting notice—is still intact.

The Mint Theater Company, founded in 1992, declares in its programs and on its  website that its mission is to find and produce “worthwhile plays from the past that have been lost or forgotten.”  Bank, the company’s current artistic director, took over in 1995 and since then, its publicity states, the Mint’s presented “close to 50 neglected plays . . . that might otherwise have been lost forever.”  New York Times theater reviewer Ben Brantley dubbed the company “resurrectionist extraordinaire of forgotten plays” five years ago.  The troupe’s reach has gone back as far as 1852 (George Aikins’s adaptation of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, 1997) and 1886 (Leo Tolstoy’s The Power of Darkness, 2007) and as recent as 1957 (J. B. Priestley’s The Glass Cage, 2008).  The Mint’s efforts have been rewarded with not only a string of good reviews, but also an Obie Grant (2001), a special Drama Desk Award (2002), and the New York Theatre Museum’s Theatre Preservation Award (2010), as well as several Drama Desk and Lucille Lortel Award nominations. 

Though the Mint is happy just to “scour the dramaturgical dustbin for worthwhile plays from the past,” the company’s especially pleased when it introduces a writer in a new light.  A. A. Milne was best known as a children’s author, especially on the strength of his Winnie-the-Pooh books, but the Mint presented his Mr. Pim Passes By (1921) in 1997-98 and again in 2004 (in rep with 1922’s The Truth About Blayds); D. H. Lawrence was only seen as a novelist until the Mint staged The Daughter-In-Law (1912) in 2003 and The Widowing of Mrs. Holroyd (1911) in 2009; Ernest Hemingway wrote only one play, the forgotten Fifth Column (1938), which the troupe produced in 2008.  But the company’s proudest achievement is arguably its focus on women dramatists, who “have always been neglected,” points out artistic director Bank, “and women playwrights fifty or sixty years ago wrote some fine drama.”  Over half of the Mint’s productions have been by women playwrights (Zona Gale, Githa Sowerby, Rachel Crothers, Teresa Deevy, among many others); its show just prior to A Day by the Sea was the U.S. première of Hazel Ellis’s Women Without Men (1938) last January through March.

The Mint started in 1992 as an actor-training program.  When Bank become the company’s executive director, he shifted its focus to production.  The Mint began staging historical plays in 1997 with Uncle Tom’s Cabin and now produces three to four old scripts a season.  Bank, who combs through play anthologies and pours over old reviews, has said, “We try to find plays, frankly, that nobody has ever heard of.  People can come here, taking a bit of a gamble.”  And the Mint not only produces old plays, they publish them as well, in a series of Reclaimed collections (now up to five) edited by Bank and distributed free to libraries, theaters, and schools.  The Mint also hosts symposiums about the plays featuring authorities in fields related to the texts or their milieux. 

Beside being a history buff, Bank has a penchant for narratives.  His interest is primarily in “a well-written play with a good story,” he says; indeed, the company’s motto used to be: “Good stories well told.”  Bank compares today’s playwrights with those of yore and finds that past writers “were better storytellers. . . .  I think too many playwrights today think they are writing movie scripts for the theater.  There is a big difference.”  In preparing scripts for production at Mint, the company may trim some excess dialogue that Bank doesn’t think will resonate with today’s audiences, but they never rewrite or adapt the plays. 

N[orman] C[harles] Hunter was born in 1908 in Derbyshire, England, and died in 1971 in London.  He intended to follow his father, a decorated army lieutenant colonel, into a military career and even attended the Royal Military College in Sandhurst, Berkshire.  Commissioned in the Dragoon Guards in 1930, he resigned three years later to become a writer.  (To support himself, Hunter took a job on the staff of the British Broadcasting Corporation.)  Before World War II, Hunter wrote six plays and four novels, although, despite showing great promise, success in either genre eluded him.  All of Hunter’s early plays are comedies with elements of farce, but as his dramaturgy matured, his writing would develop poignancy and poetry. 

The nascent dramatist served in the Royal Artillery during World War II and spent some time convalescing in a Devon military hospital during the war.  In 1947, Hunter returned to writing plays.  His scripts showed a marked change, however, perhaps as a result of Hunter’s wartime experience.  More despairing and realistic, Waters of the Moon in 1951 and A Day by the Sea in 1953 provided Hunter with a reputation as an “English Chekhov.”  (Of course, Hunter wasn’t the only playwright of his era to be given that sobriquet.  Rodney Ackland—The Dark River, 1943—and Wynyard Browne—The Holly and the Ivy, 1950—were others, though, like Hunter, mostly forgotten today.)  In his review of the Broadway production of A Day by the Sea, Brooks Atkinson, calling the characterization “a synonym for preciousness and languor,” wrote in the New York Times: “To call a playwright ‘Chekhovian’ today is to utter opprobrium and to consign him to the doghouse.”  

Time, unfortunately, wasn’t kind to Hunter and his plays fell out of fashion with the arrival of a new breed of writers composing dramas concerning the working classes such as John Osborne (Look Back in Anger, 1956) and the Angry Young Men in the ’50s and then Joe Orton (What the Butler Saw, 1969) and Shelagh Delaney (A Taste of Honey, 1959) in the ’60s.  Hunter wrote four plays in the decade preceding his death at 62 in 1971 (The Tulip Tree, 1962; The Excursion, 1964; Henry of Navarre, 1966; The Adventures of Tom Random, 1967) but compared to the new revolutionary writers whose work dealt with topics and used language far from the drawing-room dramas of N. C. Hunter, these looked quaint and old-fashioned.  

Nonetheless, in their time, Hunter’s plays attracted such notable actors to perform them as John Gielgud (A Day by the Sea), Wendy Hiller (Waters of the Moon, 1975 revival), Sybil Thorndike (Waters of the Moon, 1951; A Day by the Sea), Ralph Richardson (A Day by the Sea), Vanessa Redgrave (A Touch of the Sun, 1958), Michael Redgrave (A Touch of the Sun), and Ingrid Bergman (Waters of the Moon, 1975).  TV films were adapted from several of his plays in the U.K.  The Actors Company Theatre (TACT) presented the New York première of Waters of the Moon in its minimally staged Salon Series in 2009.  Hunter’s 1951 play A Picture of Autumn (which received only a one-night staging in London) was revived Off-Broadway by the Mint Theater Company in 2013 (with a cast that included George Morfogen, Jill Turner, and Katie Firth of the current production). 

A Day by the Sea opened on London’s West End in 1953 and ran for 386 performances in a production that starred Sir John Gielgud (who also directed, as Julian), Dame Sybil Thorndike (Laura), Irene Worth (Frances), and Sir Ralph Richardson (Doctor Farley).  Directed in New York by Sir Cedric Hardwicke, the play opened at the ANTA Playhouse (now the August Wilson Theatre) on Broadway on 26 September 1955 with Jessica Tandy as Frances and Hume Cronyn as Julian and ran only 24 performances until 15 October.  The Mint Theater’s Off-Broadway presentation of A Day by the Sea, the only Hunter play to run on Broadway, is the first New York revival of the 1953 play.  It began previews at the Samuel Beckett Theatre on Theatre Row on 22 July and opened on 25 August; the production’s scheduled closing has been extended to 23 October from 24 September.  (Day, Mint’s inaugural show for the season, is the company’s début production in the Beckett, its new home.)  Diana and I met at the Theatre Row complex on West 42nd Street to see the 7:30 performance on Saturday evening, 27 August. 

Directed for the Mint by Austin Pendleton, the two-intermission Day by the Sea runs two hours and 50 minutes.  The story takes place over 24 hours in May 1953 at the Dorset estate of Laura Anson (Jill Tanner), a 65-year-old widow, on the English Channel 120 miles southwest of London.  Laura is occasionally visited at her home, with its quiet garden terrace by a river and a private beach where the family picnics and strolls by the sea, by her 40-year-old son, Julian (Julian Elfer), a mid-level British diplomat posted to Paris.  Also living with her is her octogenarian brother-in-law David (George Morfogen), who shifts between his memories and the present, and an attendant physician, the alcoholic, embittered Doctor Farley (Philip Goodwin).  It’s an idyllic and privileged location, undisturbed by the outside world which doesn’t seem to dare intrude aside from the daily newspaper and the “wireless radio.”  (Television, which 21% of Britons had by 1953, isn’t even mentioned.  My guess: the Ansons don’t have a set.)

Also returning for a visit this summer is Frances Farrar (Katie Firth), an orphan who was raised by the Ansons and, after a 20-year absence, is seeking refuge after leaving her suicidal second husband, with her daughter, Elinor (Kylie McVey), and son, Toby (Athan Sporek), along with their governess, 35-year-old spinster Matty Mathieson (Polly McKie).  The family solicitor, William Gregson (Curzon Dobell), pays a call during the course of the play, and Julian’s superior in the Foreign Office, Humphrey Caldwell (Sean Gormley), makes an appearance bearing portentous news.

Hunter has given each character an opportunity to take the stage and reveal her or his story, but in act two, the main focus becomes Julian’s situation.  The play is essentially about his personal and professional mid-life crises (an expression I don’t think was current in the 1950s).  His foreign service  career has been middling as younger officers have been promoted ahead of him and Caldwell has come to inform him that he’s being recalled from Paris—principally because he’s not well liked at the embassy, where he’s seen as a humorless workaholic—and he sees that his life of lost opportunities and missed chances has been wasted and unappreciated.

Julian’s biggest failure, which he’d never even recognized until now, is the possibility of marriage to Frances, who’d been in love with him since their shared childhoods.  They went their separate ways two decades ago, but Julian suddenly imagines that he can reignite Frances’s interest.  It’s too late, of course, and the same fate befalls the desperately lonely Miss Mathieson, who makes a proposal to the doctor.  Beyond contemplating Julian’s unfulfilled life, Day is about words unspoken, dreams unattained, feelings unexpressed, and hope unrealized.  The play ends on a note of despondency as no one gets even a glimmer of change for the better.

A Day by the Sea is the third Mint production I’ve seen, but the previous ones (a two-play bill of George Kelly’s The Flattering Word, 1929, and Harley Granville-Barker’s A Farewell to Theater, 1920, and Arthur Schnitzler’s 1911 Far and Wide) were as far back as 2000 and 2003.  I stopped going to the Mint because I had a recurring problem with its repertoire: I questioned the need to revive the old plays they staged.  I’m afraid I had the same problem with Day that I had with the earlier Mint shows.  It doesn’t have much to say to us in the 21st century.  Hunter’s study of “the strains and stresses of middle-age” isn’t a particularly new or under-explored topic, and it’s not terribly dramatic.  Day is all talk—for nearly three hours (one character even dares to ask, “Does something happen soon?  It’s pretty dull, this”)—and the situation and characters are so contrived that what little drama there is, is phony anyway.  (Even the acting, which I’ll get to in more detail shortly, is artificial and I suspect that the play, which isn’t a “style” piece, drove the actors into that mode somehow.)

(Diana, by the way, liked Day.  She seems to like talk plays; I had the same difference of opinion with her over Oslo in July and some years ago over David Ives’s New Jerusalem.  See my reports on, respectively, 13 August 2016 and 20 April 2014.) 

As far as I’m concerned, it’s perfectly understandable that Hunter fell quickly out of fashion as soon as Osborne and the Angry Young Men came on the scene three years after Day went on stage—and why, despite Timesman Genzlinger’s mystification, it ran only 24 performances in New York in 1955.  Furthermore, I see no damn good reason to give him a second life except as a museum curiosity. 

In its statement of the Mint’s mission, the company’s webpage posts: ”We do more than blow the dust off neglected plays; we make vital connections between the past and present.”  It’s an important point  for the troupe, and in a profile of the Mint and Jonathan Bank, the author repeats that the theater is “famous for presenting plays from the recesses of history . . . that connect to the modern world.”  As I said earlier, I don’t see it, especially not in A Day by the Sea.  Oh, yes, there are almost always some parallels and connections between period plays and today—and 1953 wasn’t all that long ago, really.  But central links, substantive associations?  No.  Universal truths about the human condition?  Nothing beyond the banal.

(A personal sidelight: In 1977, I saw Cronyn and Tandy in D. L. Coburn’s The Gin Game, another play in which there’s no real action.  Not only did the acting couple make the play eminently watchable, despite its inactivity, but they kept it running.  Gin Game stayed at the John Golden Theatre for 528 performances, but E. G. Marshall took ove for Cronyn in June 1978 and Maureen Stapleton replaced Tandy around September—and the show closed on 31 December.  Revivals in 1997 and 2025 ran respectively 164 and 115 performances, suggesting to me that the Cronyns were the reason Gin Game did so well at the box office.  Yet they couldn’t manage the same result for A Day by the Sea in 1955.  I posit that even though the Cronyns were already a renowned acting couple, the play was impervious to their appeal.)

The Anson estate is hermetically sealed against the outside world.  Julian makes gestures of involvement in the world of affairs—he carries a newspaper with him everywhere, but hardly actually reads it—but this stance is mostly used as a way to berate Laura for being uninterested in anything beyond the borders of the family estate to which she’s devoted.  In the Ansons’ version of Dorset, momentous events like the 1952 death of King George VI and the succession of Princess Elizabeth to the throne don’t seem to have happened.  Beyond Britain, the United States got a new president, Dwight D. Eisenhower, who had been the supreme commander of the Allied forces in the recent war; Joseph Stalin died in the Soviet Union, which got a new premier; Dag Hammarskjöld became the second United Nations secretary-general; the discovery of DNA was announced; Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay reached the top of Mt. Everest—all before the end of May 1953.  None of it penetrated the time warp of Hunter’s artificial, denatured world.

(By the way, also never raised is the circumstance of Frances’s divorce from her second husband.  My understanding of British divorce laws in the ’50s is that there was only one admissible grounds: infidelity.  Either Frances or her husband had to have committed adultery in order for a divorce to be granted in England at the time.  Now, I’ve heard of couples seeking a legal divorce deliberately setting up a case for infidelity, but in A Day by the Sea, nothing at all is mentioned.  Perhaps this was in the bits Bank and Pendleton cut from the text as irrelevant, but a 1950s London audience would surely have known the requirements.)

This disconnect is part of what impels me to dismiss A Day by the Sea as a viable piece of theater.  Julian is built up as engaged in the global issues of the time, rattling off a few matters his mother doesn’t even acknowledge.  But it’s an imitation of a what we’d call today a “foreign policy wonk”; not only has the accession to the throne of England’s first queen in over a generation not mentioned, but the Cold War doesn’t even get a nod.  That’s just the macrocosm—the big picture.  At the individual character level the play’s no more real.  As I said, Julian’s portrayed as someone concerned with affairs of state, but he does no more than give them lip service.  It’s a construct, not a reality, and all the other characters cleave to the same pattern.  Hunter has limned a set of characteristics for each one—Frances is lost and confused, Laura is devoted to the estate, Doctor Finley is embittered and depressed, Miss Mathieson is lonely and desperate—and the actors toe the line like puppets.  But there’s no humanity in it; it’s all pro forma, not an organic feeling in the lot. 

On top of that, Hunter’s set up each character’s personality and circumstances so that, like a little jigsaw puzzle, all the pieces fit perfectly into the schematic plot.  (Giving each character a moment to shine, however, attenuates the play without always advancing its point.  Each one explaining him- or herself at length and in detail is an anti-Chekhovian technique, spelling out what the great Russian writer made us piece together.  One’s storytelling, the other’s drama.)  Julian’s and Matty’s proposals fail because they have to, not because the characters do.  In fact, they have to make the proposals because the story demands it—Hunter’s seen to that.  Julian’s a workaholic because if he’s not, he can’t be the failure Hunter needs him to be so he can have that career and personal crisis.  Of course, like any good artificial life form, the characters of A Day by the Sea don’t change even after they have their crises; they all go right back to the way they were before the play started, a little worse off for the experience but unchanged fundamentally.  It’s a virtual drama.

I don’t know if Bank or Pendleton acknowledge this—I suspect not—but set designer Charles Morgan might have.  His scenic design suggests he recognized the artificial nature of the play.  First, the opening set, which we see when we take our seats since there’s no front drape, is a little too perfect, like a computer-generated 3-D picture.  (What it reminded me of more than anything is a scene in one of those View-Master slides we used to look at when we were kids.  It looked real, but somehow not quite.)  While the principal scenery—the garden terrace and its concrete wall and planted flower urns, the swing, the patio chairs and table, the wood-framed lounge chair—are all realistic in style, the periphery of trees and foliage isn’t; it’s slightly impressionistic, vague, fuzzy.  Again, not real.

But the first of two give-aways is that on the back wall of the stage isn’t a cyc or a painted backdrop of a receding vista, but a huge, framed painting showing the view of the hills and the river of the nearby countryside.  The painting style was sort of Hudson River School Romanticism (or whatever the British counterpart would have been).  The idealized and romanticized view of the landscape depicted by that art movement is a perfect evocation of the timbre of Hunter’s play.  (In the beach setting of act two, the river painting is switched for one showing a seashore.)  

The second manifestation of this sense of unreality I attribute to Morgan is strikingly unrealistic: the gold-and-ivory frame that demarcates the background painting is repeated around the proscenium opening and then again, halfway back over the center of the playing area above the terrace.  Together, this device calls to mind those infinitely recursive pictures sometimes seen in product packaging.  (I’ve learned that this is called the Droste effect: a picture appearing within itself, the smaller version containing an even smaller version of the picture, and so on, ad infinitum.)  It signifies to me that this is a world that folds in on itself endlessly.  Furthermore, since there’s a second “proscenium arch” within the set, it signifies to me that not only are the actors playing roles, but the characters are also playing parts.

Aside from this scenic interpretation, Morgan’s design seems to have created a directorial dilemma for Pendleton, which he wasn’t able to solve.  It looked like there’s too much distance between the off-stage edges of the set and the main playing areas downstage, where almost all the activity happens.  (Both the terrace furniture and the beach paraphernalia are down front.)  Actors entering during on-going scenes have to come onto the stage several feet, then stand for a minute or two awaiting their cues before speaking and completing their entrances.  It looks as if they’re eavesdropping, but they aren’t; they’re just waiting, and it looks very awkward and telegraphs that a new scene’s about to start.

No other design element makes this statement.  Martha Hally’s costumes are perfectly reflective of the times and class presented by the play.  Aside from lawyer Gregson and Julian, the other summer inhabitants of the Anson estate wear seasonal country or beach attire compatible with the time (the early ’50s) and place (the U.K.—let’s face it, they’re just more formal than we are here in the colonies).  Julian and Gregson, though, never appear without a dark suit; the lawyer’s on the job, so that’s understandable, but Julian probably doesn’t own even the light grey version that his Whitehall superior, Humphrey Caldwell, wears when he pays his visit.  The music of Jane Shaw and the background sounds she employs blend in the same way. 

The performances vary slightly.  I found all of the acting brittle and forced, less than natural, and I attribute that to the nature of Hunter’s script and the inherent requirements of Day: its time, place, and class.  I’ll assume that actors of the quality of this cast don’t have problems putting themselves back in time to the mid-20th century.  Next to learning lines, if they can’t do that, they’re in the wrong business.  But perhaps the upper-middle-class British milieu of Hunter’s world throws them a bit, maybe with the addition of a plummy accent as well.  (Miss Mathieson is a Scot, so Polly McKie has a different task.)  Whatever it is that makes everyone on stage take such care with their speech and behavior, it comes off as if they’re all thinking their way through every moment and each word.  That’s for rehearsal, not performance; by then, an actor should have internalized all that care and effort and I shouldn’t be seeing and hearing it.  Given how I feel about this play, I posit that the actors all sense the artificiality of the script and just can’t commit to it on a visceral level.  Just a guess, of course, but that’s my sense of what’s going on on stage.

Several of the actors, however, seem to go a step further.  As I said earlier, Day isn’t a style show: the acting is supposed to be naturalistic; but some of the cast come very close to doing style, a kind of Restoration drama-manqué.  The clearest example is Julian Elfer as Julian Anson.  (In his black suit and inability to unbend, Elfer reminded me repeatedly of English actor Ben Miller as Detective Inspector Richard Poole on the British police procedural Death in Paradise, the ultimate fish out of water.  Detailed from London to the Caribbean island of St. Marie, Poole also insists on wearing a dark suit at all times.  It doesn’t hurt this resemblance that Elfer, who’s British-born, sounds remarkably like Miller’s uptight DI Poole.)  Also suffering from this excessive artificiality is Katie Firth as Frances.  It’s less pronounced than in Elfer’s performance, but Firth, too, seems always to be on guard.  That’s not Frances being wary, but the actress treading carefully.  As artificial as I found the play on its own, the performance problems I identified added another level of unreality to the production.

Other, more fundamental problems are contingent on the acting and the directing, however.  First, though Ben Miller’s DI Poole was intended as slightly comic and eventually became endearing, Elfer’s Julian isn’t funny and never becomes a figure of sympathy.  He’s a prig with a stick up his butt and doesn’t deserve any better than he gets.  As the focal character in the play, that doesn’t bode well for the whole enterprise.  As for Laura, Tanner and Pendleton never make it clear if she’s somehow responsible for raising her son to be an ineffectual twit or if she did her best but Julian turned out the way he did despite her.  As solid as Tanner’s performance is, Laura’s little more than a catalyst for the plot: if it weren’t for her and her seaside home, the other characters wouldn’t have come together for the play.

Obviously, Pendleton is responsible for these developments, but did he select them, guide the actors to this behavior?  If he did, I can’t see any rationale for it, not artistically or dramatically at any rate.  But if the director didn’t point the actors to these performances, then why didn’t he pull them back from it or ease them out of it?  After all, that’s part of what a director is there to do—serve as the outside eye, the audience’s surrogate before the paying spectators arrive.  To be the performance editor, paring away what doesn’t belong, to shape the production the way a book editor helps the author shape her novel.  So, either Pendleton chose this manner of acting for Day, or he allowed it to remain by default.  As far as I’m concerned, he didn’t serve the play well, either way.  I doubt anything a director could have done would have made A Day by the Sea more than a middling piece of theater, a cultural-history curiosity, but the performance style of the Mint’s production only exacerbates the deficiencies I perceived.  At three hours, even small problems are magnified.

One final note on the actors: George Morfogen as Uncle David received the warmest notices, and the actor does a terrific job embodying the doddering dear old man—but poor David serves almost no purpose except as a repository for the audience’s excess sympathy and fondness.  Along with Miss Mathieson, David’s easily one of the only two truly appealing characters in the play, but what’s he actually there for?  (I might ask the same question about Elinor and Toby Eddison, Frances’s young children.  Like David, their presence adds nothing to the play.  They’re set dressing.)  Morfogen’s excellent performance is just wasted.

Based on a tally of 22 reviews, Show-Score reported that the Mint’s A Day by the Sea received 63% positive reviews, 14% negative, and 23% mixed.  The production accumulated an average rating of 77, in the positive range but moderately low from my observation of the site.  (What’s more, though Day had several 90’s and 95’s and one 100, it also got several of the lowest-scored negative notices I’ve seen so far.)

The high score went to Terry Teachout’s Wall Street Journal review, in which he lauded the company’s “refreshing originality of taste.”  Declaring that the Mint “has outdone itself” with A Day by the Sea, “the finest of the noteworthy plays” the company’s produced, Teachout pronounced the play “that rarest of rarities, a forgotten masterpiece, acted by the best ensemble cast I’ve seen in recent seasons and staged with taut vitality.”  He labeled Day “a quiet character study written in the manner of Anton Chekhov” that’s “trivial only if you think the lives of ordinary middle-class people are trivial.”  Continued Teachout, “Those are the same people about whom Chekhov wrote, and Hunter cared no less for them, portraying their sorrows with a sensitivity—and wit—that are worthy of his master.”  (The WSJ reviewer held British critic Kenneth Tynan, who, Teachout asserted, “favored the Angry Young Men of the British stage and had little use for plays without a political message,” responsible for Hunter’s demise as a successful playwright.)  Singling out Firth and Elfer for special notice, the Jounalist reported that the cast all “give vividly drawn performances” and that Pendleton “knows that the trick to making a play like ‘A Day by the Sea’ work is to winkle out the laughs and let the pathos take care of itself.”  Teachout added that “everything about this staging is as right as the play itself,” noting that the “sets are uncomplicated but utterly right” and the sound design “set just the right mood.”  The Journal review-writer concluded, “Would that Broadway were still a fitting home for plays like ‘A Day by the Sea.’ Like everything the Mint does, it deserves a much wider audience.”

The lowest score in Show-Score’s tally (30) went to north-central Connecticut’s Journal-Inquirer in which Lauren Yarger quips in her opening paragraphs that in Day, the members of a family “gaze out expectantly on the horizon waiting for something to ride in on the tide.”  But “they are disappointed—and so is the audience—because very little happens in the three-hour-with-two-intermissions production.”  In contrast with previous, more successful Mint revivals, Day “has us wondering how this play ever got produced in the first pla[ce], let alone beat out others more deserving of a revival.”  Pendleton’s Day, wrote Yarger, “features good actors, but the slim plot, sketchy character development, and exposition-laden dialogue don’t give them much to work with, unfortunately.”  Yarger also saw a similar meaning in the scenic devices in Morgan’s design to what I described earlier, the “blurry leaves hanging overhead and large impressionistic paintings”: “The blurry art is indicative of the characters[] efforts to bring a sharper focus to the meaning of their lives.”  The reviewer lamented, however, “Not much happens in the way of developing any of [the] plots, however, despite moments of hope for insightful thought.”  Suggesting that “most of Act One could be cut,” she went on to present a list of dramatic deficiencies inherent in Day and the Mint production, including “so laced with explanations of past events to give us background,” “characters sing for reasons that escape me,” and “awkward entrances by the actors throughout” as “actors seems to be walking onto stage, distracting attention, just so they can get to their marks for upcoming lines.” 

In the New York Times, which got a 90 rating from Show-Score, Neil Genzlinger opened his review by declaring, “There’s so much to like about the Mint Theater Company’s revisiting of ‘A Day by the Sea’ that it’s hard to know what to single out for first-paragraph attention.”  The Timesman called A Day by the Sea a “very well made play” about “an economically comfortable family in an anxious age,” and he asserted that director Pendleton “gets the most out of it.”  (Where the Journal’s Teachout wondered “how Hunter . . . could have dropped off the map of English-language theater,” Genzlinger marveled, “How the 1955 Broadway production of this play ran only a few weeks, despite Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy in the roles, is a mystery.”  I believe I’ve made my take on both questions clear.)

Michael Feingold opened his Village Voice notice by recounting one moment: “‘How much longer are we going to sit here?’ grouses an elderly uncle to the country-house clan gathered for a seaside picnic.”  Feingold added, “Many in the 2016 audiences . . . may share his irritation” (and even suggested that this might have explained the short run of the Cronyn-Tandy Broadway mounting). He provided a list of things that don’t happen (Julian doesn’t get promoted and doesn’t marry Frances, Doctor Finley doesn’t get sober or lose his job, and so on) “while Hunter’s inaction winds through its three languid hours, with two intermissions.”  Feingold had mixed feelings about Hunter’s “rhetorical expansiveness,” those long speeches his characters give.  On the one hand, he said, “his characters sometimes rise to quite vivid oratorical passages”; on the other, the “grand speeches . . . make the characters seem like empty allegorical figures, while the touches of quirky individuality turn the rhetoric hollow.”  This dichotomy, averred the Voice reviewer, “gives his plays their peculiarly cloggy quality, heightening the work’s oddity while diluting its intensity.”  As for Hunter’s dramaturgical fate, Feingold observed, “Times had changed; in due course England’s . . . theater changed with them.  Hunter’s playwriting, poised on the cusp of change, did not.”  The “Goings On About Town” column in the New Yorker called Day a “leisurely play” in a “glowing revival” which “does great honor” to the “legendary” London cast of 1953.  “Hunter’s lyrical dialogue,” wrote the New Yorker reviewer, “concerns matters practical and philosophical.”

Time Out New York’s David Cote remarked that Hunter “wears” his Chekhovian influence “slavishly,” and with some of the more obvious echoes of the master playwright, “you’re just begging for unflattering comparisons with the Russian master.”  Complaining of Hunter’s “derivativeness,” the man from TONY quipped that “it’s as if Hunter wrote on tracing paper laid over Uncle Vanya.”  Still, Cote noted, the playwright “is a sensitive observer of English neuroses and resilience” and the “fine cast . . . navigates the quippy, stiff-upper-lipness with vibrant grace.”  The play’s “a melancholy study of middle-age malaise leavened by flashes of wit and humor, good for the Anglophiles and Downton Abbey addicts,” Cote concluded, “even if this tidy revival doesn’t wash the previous criticism away with the tide.”

On Theater Pizzazz, Sandi Durell reported that, despite a ”talented cast” “wisely” directed by Pendleton, A Day by the Sea is “an all too lengthy and tedious 2 hours 55 minutes!”  Nonetheless, the play “does have its many moments of humor and heartfelt sincerity.”  “While the feelings presented in this play are universal,” wrote David Gordon on TheaterMania, “they're strained by the three-act structure, with too little action to justify its length.”  “A Day by the Sea is surprisingly relevant,” noted Gordon, but the “attractive” production, which “moves at a leisurely pace,” “cannot overcome the tediousness of the script.”  Before “any semblance of action occurs,” much of the three-hour performance must pass, and the “enigmatic quality of the moods on display doesn't help.”  The production is “pleasing to look at,” with “breezily picturesque” scenery, “lovely period costumes,” and “authentic seaside lighting.”  With the exception of a few—Gordon named George Morfogen and McKie—“most of the company is too actorly to be truly believable.” 

Samuel L. Leiter warned, “Very little happens” in A Day by the Sea on Theatre’s Leiter Side: “Lengthy monologues expressing cynicism about the state of the world as well as idealistic visions of the future mingle with casual, throwaway trivialities.  After nearly three hours, the play concludes with a tone of bittersweet regret for lost opportunities and the somewhat forced sense that a new and better phase in the lives of all concerned is about to begin.”  But Leiter lamented, “The best one can say of the revival (and of the play itself, for that matter) . . . is that it’s dully respectable.”  The blogger specified:

The staging is uninspired, the casting flawed, and the acting uneven; moreover, the slow-paced, relatively plotless play, although not entirely lifeless nor without moments of dry humor, suffers too many longueurs.  And Hunter’s writing in act one offers a lesson in how not to introduce exposition.

The set, however, is “pretty,” reported Leiter, and “there are generally effective performances from the venerable George Morfogen, . . . Jill Tanner . . ., and Polly McKie.” 

On CurtainUp, Elyse Sommer described the Mint’s Day as a “handsomely staged, splendidly performed production” that “proves that old-fashioned, well-made plays of the 1950s can still entertain and overcome their dated aspects.”  She also reported that it’s “three-acts in which nothing much happens except for a lot of exposition,” yet Sommer labels Day “distinguished.”  The CU reviewer further noted, “It’s a talky play, but for the most part talky in the best sense.”  That talk, Sommer explained, is the play’s chief asset, for though “we can pretty accurately guess what’s going to happen just ten or fifteen minutes into the play,” Hunter “makes it all fresh and, yes, timely” by “a series of revealing and acutely observed conversations.”  Pendleton keeps the traffic flowing “smoothly so that the actors can make the most of their well-developed characters and the witty interchanges.” 

Michael Portantiere complained on Talkin’ Broadway, “The play’s length and its three-act structure seem ill advised, and at least one of the 10 characters seems entirely superfluous.”  (He meant solicitor Gregson, as he later explained.)  He also observed that there are “rather too many” subplots and characters and that those plots and the “interrelationships between the characters are interesting in themselves, but they are not woven together very well by the playwright,” especially under the “flaccid direction” of Austin Pendleton.  The director, Portantiere asserted, “seems to have concentrated more on blocking and stage business than helping the cast connect with the text and with each other.”  Despite these flaws, the TB reviewer found, however, that “the Mint has given A Day by the Sea a typically gorgeous, thoroughly professional production,” with sets and costumes that “couldn’t be lovelier” or lighting “any closer to perfect.” 

In the Huffington Post, David Finkle quoted the theater critic W. A. Darlington of London’s Daily Telegraph on A Day by the Sea in 1953, who thought other critics were “demonstrably wrong” when they “treated disparagingly” the work of N. C. Hunter, whose “sense of character was acute and full of original observation”—and Finkle affirmed, “I won't attempt to put it any better.”  The HP First Nighter asserted, “A Day by the Sea practically runs down a checklist of Chekhovian aspects,” and names several of them, adding, “This is Chekhov territory, all right.”  All the actors (including, Finkle reported, the choldren) “bring infinite subtleties to their assignments” as they perform on Morgan’s “unusually elegant set” in Hally's “flawless period costumes.”  Director Pendleton “is attuned to Hunter's Chekhovian blend of disillusionment, humor and eventual acceptance and . . . brings it all to vibrant, plangent life.” 

[A completely irrelevant comment: There are two children in A Day by the Sea.  Though Hunter seems to have made a point of pinpointing the ages of nearly all his characters, he didn’t specify how old Frances’s daughter and son are, but we do know that they were born during World War II and that they were too young to really know their father, Frances’s first husband, when he was killed in combat.  Remembering that the war in Europe began in 1939, Elinor and Toby Eddison could be as old as 14 and, say, 9—but I imagine they’re about the same ages as the actors who play them at the Mint.  Kylie McVey, who plays Elinor, says she’s about to start eighth grade, which I figure makes her about 13; brother Toby is played by Athan Sporek, who says he’s 8.  During the show, I calculated how old I’d have been in May 1953.  I’d have turned 7 on my next birthday—close to the age of little Toby in the play.  Obviously we’re separated by nationality and, to a large extent, class, but in the broadest sense, I’d have been Toby.  Laura Anson isn’t the children’s grandmother by blood, but they consider her as such; my mother’s  parents didn’t have an estate, but every summer they used to take a house in Deal, New Jersey, a town on the Jersey Shore, and I vaguely remember spending time there with my mom and dad.  (There are lots of photos of me at the Deal house.  One shows my mother’s grandfather, her mother, my mother, and me sitting in a diagonal line down the steps of the house’s front veranda—four generations in chronological order.)  Toby’s and my lives were certainly nowhere near alike, but in the world of Hunter’s play, the character who most closely represents me is Toby.

[As I said: completely irrelevant.  I’m just sayin’.]

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