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A Day by the Sea

'When I'm feeling cross, Mr. Caldwell, I sometimes tell Julian that I don't think people in his profession have very much to boast about. Just think what the diplomats of the world have arranged in my unhappy lifetime — two enormous wars and Europe practically bankrupt. What an achievement! The incompetence of so-called statesmen is beyond belief. And to think they get paid for their clumsy blunderings!"
— Laura Anson to Caldwell, her son's colleague in the foreign service. Caldwell, being a pragmatist admits that diplomats, like the vast majority of humankind, are second-rate." No wonder his advice to Laura's perfectionist son is to "try to live in the world as it is, and not dream all the time of what it may be in five hundred years, when we're all of us wiser and kinder and cleverer."
day by the sea
George Morfogen and Philip Goodwin (Photo: Richard Termine).
The Mint Theater Company has done it again. Their handsomely staged, splendidly performed production of A Day By the Sea proves that old-fashioned, well-made plays of the 1950s can still entertain and overcome their dated aspects.

In this age of the fast-moving, 90-minute intermissionless play, three-acts in which nothing much happens except for a lot of exposition may seem to call for an iconic by-line like Anton Chekhov to warrant a revival. N.C. Hunter's play currently at the Mint Theater's new home on Theater Row is indeed reminiscent of Chekhov's slowly unfolding portraits of disappointed with life characters. However, it's more than a Chekhov play with an English accent and setting. Hunter's characters are distinctly his own, very British and of his own background and era. Thus A Day by the Sea is true to the Mint's mission to rescue distinguished theatrical voices from obscurity.

That N. C. Hunter is indeed such a voice won't surprise the Mint's many long time fans who saw the 2013 production of his A Picture of Autumn . Instead of yet another Chekhov play that you've seen often enough to know many bits of dialogue by heart (The Roundabout Theater Company will pursue its own mission of mounting starry, freshly adapted revivals of popular classics with a Fall production of The Cherry Orchard), A Day By the Sea is your chance to spend almost three hours at the seaside home of Laura Anson (Jill Tanner) in 1953. It's a talky play, but for the most part talky in the best sense.

The Anson seaside estate no longer boasts Downton Abbey style affluence and splendor. However, the time frame and James Morgan's handsome unit set makes it a peaceful oasis in a world battered by two wars — neither of which succeeded in creating a hoped for age of tranquility.

While the key plot point is a crisis in dedicated career diplomat Julian Anson's (Julian Elfer) life. As we watch that crisis unfold, we realize that only the children flying kites and collecting shells are still unaffected by life's way of disappointing our expectations of others and ourselves.

In a never before published program note reproduced in the Mint program courtesy of the playwright's estate, Mr. Hunter explained that being in his forties made him feel empowered to use Julian Anson's coming face-to-face with a go-nowhere stage of his once promising career in the foreign service. Of course, middle age nowadays doesn't begin until around sixty and the big reveal awaiting Julian via the visit of Humphrey Caldwell (Sean Gormley) the head of the foreign office's personnel department is hardly a surprise. But that's exactly why A Day By The Sea comes off unhampered by its dated view of middle age predictability and even its languid pace.

Whenever and wherever we're confronted with it, the predicament of having to re-think what was and will be is universal. No matter, that we can pretty accurately guess what's going to happen just ten or fifteen minutes into the play. What makes it all fresh and, yes, timely, is how the playwright uses Julian's being shocked out of his complacency, to unfurl the mostly dashed hopes of the other characters through a series of revealing and acutely observed conversations.

Besides Laura and Julian, there's David Anson (George Morfogen), the brother of Laura's long dead husband; David's alcoholic, caustic resident caretaker Dr.Farley (Philip Goodwin),; Laura's twice married former ward Frances Farrar (Katie Firth); Elinor and Toby Eddison (Kiley McVey and Athan Sporek), the two children from Frances's first marriage, and their governess Miss Mathieson (Polly McKie).

Whew! quite a lot of actors to move on stage as needed, and send off again to allow for the duologues that give this quiet play its momentum. But Austin Pendleton manages to make these entrances and exits go smoothly so that the actors can make the most of their well-developed characters and the witty interchanges Hunter wrote for each. And do they ever!

Julian Elfer is deliciously pompous and clueless as the diplomat whose purpose-driiven life style has not only derailed his career but made him miss the long-ago chance make Frances Farrar more than his childhood companion. The playwright handles his bumbling wake-up call sympathetically, but doesn't succumb to a pat "they lived happily ever after" ending.

For Jill Tanner, George Morfogen and Katie Firth this production is a reunion since they were also in Hunter's A Picture in Autumn. They were excellent then, and are so again here.

George Morfogen as the man too old to have options for escaping from life's disappointments doesn't get to say a lot, but this unfailingly outstanding character actor can say much with a look and a few words. And he does have a show stopping turn when he greets his realization that he's been with Laura not eight but eighteen years with "Eighteen. . .Is there no end to it? One begins to feel there'sbeen some mistake. One's been left behind, so to speak, while all one's friends. . ." He interrupts his rant by pointing to the sky with his stick and declaring "Hi! You up there! What about me?" The audience at the performance I attended bought into his shocked despair with a round of applause.

The play's saddest but also funniest character is the resident doctor whose downbeat view of life, world leaders and his own medical career spans the two world wars. Philip Goodwin's portrayal of Doctor Farley allows us to see his kinship to Chekhov's doctors as well as Shakespeare's Falstaff. His put-down of people in powerful jobs is devastating: "They don't know what they're doing!. . . They plot and plan, confer and scheme, sign treaties, build armies— and other people pay. Yes, that's the end of it —young men die!"

Curzon Dobell, Sean Gormley and Polly McKie make strong impressions in minor roles. McKie's scene with Goodwin's doctor is a touching commentary on how the two world wars doomed so many women to lonely lives.

Given current world events where no amount of well-intentioned diplomacy has brought us any closer to the assurance of a true age of tranquility, the acerbic comments about world leaders by Laura Anson, Doctor Farley and Humphrey Caldwell make this more than half a century old play all too timely.

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A Day By the Sea by N.C. Hunter
Directed By Austin Pendleton
Cast: Fordon Dobell (William Gregson), Julian Elfer (Julian Anson), Ross Katie Firth (Frances Farrar), Philip Goodwin (Doctgor Farley), Sean Gormley (Humphrey Caldwell), Polly McKie (Miss Mathieson), Kylie McVey (Elinor Eddison), George Morfogen (David Anson),Athan Sporek (Toby Eddison), Jill Tanner (Laura Anson)
Scenic design by Charles Morgan
Costume design by Martha Hally
Lighting design by Xavier Pierce
Sound and music design by Jane Shaw
Props: Joshua Yocum
Dialect and dramaturgy: Amy Stoller
Wig and hair design: Robert Charles Vallance
Stage Manager: Arielle Goldstein
Running Time: 2 hours and 50 minutes, includes 2 intermissions
Mint Theater at the Beckett Theatre 410 West 42nd Street
From 7/22/16; opening 8/25/16; closing 10/30/16
Tuesday – Saturday 7:30pm; Saturday & Sunday 2:30 pm; Wednesday 8/24 & 9/21 2:30pm
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at 8/23 press preview

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