By Stanford Friedman
N.C. Hunter’s quietly passionate drama, A Day by the Sea, premiered in London in 1953, with its characters sharing many of the dilemmas that American characters were suffering through in their own post-war plays. There’s the man who pours his entire life into his job, only to find that he is no longer needed and not especially well-liked. There’s the attractive widow with a dark secret, the governess with one last chance at avoiding spinsterhood, and the alcoholic who has given up on life. But, being proper and British, there will be no suicide and no rape; just stiff upper lips as the blood slowly simmers under their skins. In this Mint Theatre Company’s revival, under the taut direction of Austin Pendleton, a uniformly strong ensemble reveals the devastatingly calm results of wrong choices and world war, without physically suffering more than a bruise.
The play is three acts in three hours, with each act having its own purpose and tone. Act 1 is primarily concerned with introducing us to the six main characters. Though 70 miles to the south and 30 years into the future, Pendleton transforms the goings on into a modern era episode of Downton Abbey. Laura (Jill Tanner) is the lady of the manor and, in the garden of her Dorset home, we meet her family and friends. Her son Julian (Julian Elfer) is a workaholic diplomat visiting from his Foreign Office position in Paris. Frances (Katie Firth) was a childhood friend of Julian’s, now seeking succor after the loss of two husbands. The elderly David (George Morfogen) is Laura’s brother-in-law and fulfills the Maggie Smith role of spouting humorous asides and sage wisdom when not napping in his chair. David is looked after by Dr. Farley (Philip Goodwin) who prefers payment in gin, while Matty (Polly McKie) helps with Frances’ two kids, in lieu of having children of her own. As at Downton, personal problems outweigh world events even as world events dictate their personal problems.
Act II, a trip to the beach, is meaty and Shakespearean with one spark setting off another and the chance of romance in the air. A major setback in Julian’s career causes him to reflect on the roads not taken. One of those roads led to Frances, but she is not the carefree girl of his youth. Meanwhile, things get weird between the two caretakers, Matty and Dr. Farley. And Act III has a touch of Oscar Wilde in its blend of wit and despair as each character’s fate comes into focus. Elfer and Firth are perfectly paired with his Julian casting a pensive Hugh Grant charm and her damaged Frances done with playing games. There’s a rope swing in the garden and Pendleton cleverly places each of the two on it at times when they are being less than fully actualized adults. Meanwhile, Goodwin’s Farley is effectively distant, a good doctor who has seen too much to want to bother with sobriety, let alone emotion, and McKie beautifully subverts the quiet nanny role in the evening’s one scene where desperation overrules expected behavior.
Last year, the Mint was booted from its quirky, if dilapidated, home on W. 43rd Street and has now found sanctuary a few blocks away at the Beckett in Theatre Row. While the Theatre Row building itself has all the architectural splendor of a self-storage facility, the contemporary space brings a sheen to a production that might have looked a little dusty in the company’s old digs. Though lovely, it was hard, at first, to see what Pendleton and scenic designer Charles Morgan were going for in their oil painting of a set with a picture frame around the proscenium. But then Frances provides a hint, telling Julian when he is at his most vulnerable, “You should have been a painter or a writer, and worked off all your romantic notions harmlessly on paper.”
A Day by the Sea – By N.C. Hunter; directed by Austin Pendleton.
WITH: Curzon Dobell (William), Julian Elfer (Julian), Katie Firth (Frances), Philip Goodwin (Dr. Farley), Sean Gormley (Humphrey), Polly McKie (Miss Mathieson), Kylie McVey (Elinor), George Morfogen (David), Athan Sporek (Toby) and Jill Tanner (Laura).
Sets by Charles Morgan, Costumes by Martha Hally, Lights by Xavier Pierce, Original Music & Sound by Jane Shaw, Props by Joshua Yocom; Production Stage Manager, Catherine Bloch. The Mint Theater Company at the Beckett Theatre at Theater Row, 410 West 42nd St., 212-239-6200, http://minttheater.org. Through September 24. Running time: 2 hours 55 minutes.