In a note on 1953’s A Day by the Sea, its playwright N.C. Hunter suggests that 40 signifies “…a foot in two worlds, half way between youth and age, promise and achievement…(with time) to succeed, to reshape one’s life…” The terms “urgency,” “crisis,” and “last chance” are employed. Think of films during that period when a woman that age was matronly, a man irrevocably settled into his future. Now reflect on contemporary timelines.
Pointedly featuring five generations of characters each of which views life from its own perspective, the piece gives us a glimpse into an upper class (civil servant) strata of British society, its morality, judgments, and expectations.
Front: Jill Tanner and George Morfogen; Back: Julian Elfer and Philip Goodwin
Julian Anson (Julian Elfer), a mid level, type A, foreign service diplomat, inherited the family manse from his father, but spends practically no time there. His idealistic, self-glorified responsibility is improving international relations, eschewing all leisure and personal relationships. He eats, sleeps and breathes his job finding inadequacies everywhere, attending profoundly larger issues than the construction of a new pig sty.
The estate is run by Julian’s stolid mother, Laura Anson (Jill Tanner), who can’t really talk to her son. She’s as oblivious to world affairs as he is to the vicissitudes of running his childhood home. Puritanical, maternal concern permeates every conversation. When Julian waxes on about a brighter future, her reaction is “You’re getting quite eloquent, dear. We must find you a soapbox in Hyde Park.”
Katie Firth and Jill Tanner
Additional occupants are Laura’s elder, infirm brother David (George Morfogen) and his paid attendant, Doctor Farley (Philip Goodwin). David clearly lived a robust life now drifting in and out of exotic memories. The doctor is an often angry, philosophizing drunk, thought to be cheaper than someone more qualified. Having lost wife and son, at 56, he’s retreated to this position with bitterness.
Summer visitors include Frances Farrar (Katie Firth) and her two children. Orphaned quite young, Frances was raised on the estate side by side with Julian, but hasn’t been back in 20 years. Her first, considerably older husband died a soldier. The second, a much younger and more fragile man, attempted suicide when she left him causing scandal. Life has happened taking its tolls. Nanny Maddie (Polly McKie), a lonely spinster at 35, affectionately manages Frances’s two children.
Polly McKie and Philip Goodwin
Long story short: Priggish Julian is forced to reconsider his life when the earth shifts beneath him. Frances receives some discomfiting resolution. Doctor Farley is presented with an option. Laura kind of gets her son back.
Hunter’s work has been compared to that of Chekhov. His characters are less earthy and fiery, but familial context, reflection of an era, and reexamination of one’s identity conforms. The play feels slow. Others despite clocking in at almost three hours do not. It’s impossible to tell how much of this is attributable to the script and how much to the production, which is not, in my opinion, up to high Mint Theater standards.
Julian Elfer and Katie Firth
George Morfogen’s David is pitch perfect. Every time the character speaks, reality infuses the scenario. The actor moves and watches like the old man. The same can be said for Polly McKie’s Maddie (Miss Mathieson) with whom we feel instant, then increasing empathy. (Her Scottish accent is sublime)
As played by Katie Firth, the underwritten Frances is a bit slow on the uptake even for her personality, but the actress has made plausible decisions which hold. Both Julian Elfer (Julian) and Jill Tanner (Laura) have long, effective segments one wishes were more dependable. Philip Goodwin chews scenery.
Julian Elfer and Jill Tanner
Austen Pendleton’s Direction is radically uneven. There are wonderful small gestures – Julian formally sits without unbuttoning his suit jacket while the doctor buttons his when Frances approaches. In crisis, Julian sits dejectedly on a swing; his mother comes up behind, holding both ropes as she consoles him. A dramatic scene between Julian and Frances shows both actors to their best, nuanced advantage as does a poignant one between Doctor Farley and Maddie. On the other hand, we have children in the space doing nothing (like sticks); there are actors who seem to disappear when not speaking, intermittent lack of focus during dialogue, and cast members so theatrically flamboyant embodiment is left in the dust of bravado.
Minimal, painterly Set by Charles Morgan is pleasantly evocative. Love the tree swing and use of overhead paintings. Martha Hally’s Costumes effortlessly put us firmly in time, place, and class.
Amy Stoller’s Dialect Coaching achieves a mishmash. Some accents are clearly faux, some inconsistent, some non-existent.
Also featuring: Curzon Dobell as William Gregson, estate accountant, a splendid Sean Gormley gracefully inhabiting the role of diplomat Humphrey Caldwell, with the immensely self conscious Kylie McVey and Athan Sporek as Frances’s two children.
Photos by Richard Termine
Opening: Katie Firth & Julian Elfer
Mint Theater Company presents
A Day by the Sea by N.C. Hunter
Directed by Austin Pendleton
The Beckett Theater
410 West 42nd Street