By N.C. Hunter
Directed By Austin Pendleton
Playwright Norman Charles Hunter merits the adjective Chekhovian in more ways than one. In setting and structure, Hunter’s work certainly shows the influence of the master of tragicomedy. As a historic figure, too, Hunter had something in common with the vanishing bourgeoisie of turn-of-the-century Russia. Once the toast of the British stage, Hunter, along with Terrence Rattigan and other West End luminaries, was destined to see his world swept away by the tide of revolution. In 1955, when John Osborne’s LOOK BACK IN ANGER ushered in the era of angry (read whiny) young man, Hunter’s gentler approach to drama went out of fashion almost overnight. Looked at through 21st Century eyes, though, Hunter’s insightful take on rising cost of ideals is surprisingly relevant. The characters that populate A DAY BY THE SEA are hardly the anyone-for-tennis stereotypes associated with British drawing room fluff. They are, like most of us, concerned about their careers, worried about the state of the world, and struggling to make sense of their relationships.
Now in his early forties, hardworking diplomat Julian Anson (Julian Elfer), once dreamed aiding in the causes of world peace and social justice. At the very least, it would be nice if he could advance beyond the middle management position he holds at a small government bureau in Paris. Unfortunately, Julian’s a little too zealous for his own good, and is not well liked by his lackadaisical employers. As he waits to hear from a colleague (Sean Gormley) if a promotion is in the cards, Julian pays what the thinks will be a brief visit to his family estate in the lovely seaside town of Dorset. Here he finds a motley assortment of folks each coping with some sort of personal conundrum. His mother Laura (Jill Tanner) keeps busy running the estate while caring for elderly Uncle David (George Morfogen). Her only assistance in this effort comes from Dr. Farley (Philip Goodwin), who is given free room and board and all the gin he can drink. Estate manager William Gregson (Curzon Dobell), seeks to improve the property, but gets little support from frugal Laura and seeks Julian’s help in changing her mind. The atmosphere is soon energized by the arrival of lovely Frances Farrar (Katie Firth). Taken in by Laura after her parents died, Frances spent a good part of her childhood at the Dorset estate and holds many fond memories. Now she has two children of her own, and is faced with the challenge of bringing them up on her own. Having lost one husband in World War II and another in a scandalous divorce, she has no idea how she’ll support her young son Toby (Athan Sporek ) and daughter Elinor (Kylie McVey). She would seem to be a perfect match for Julian, and a romantic chemistry begins to develop between the two singles. In a parallel scenario, the doctor- a good man despite his bad habits- wins the admiration of governess Miss Mathieson (Polly McKie). Her nurturing touch might be just the thing to pull him back from the abyss. Of course, drawing up blueprints for happiness is one thing. Putting a plan into action is another, and there are more surprises to come before the end of the day.
Although the evening moves a leisurely clip, the dramatic never slackens and the suspense mounts considerably towards the play’s conclusion. We care whether Julian will pop the question or pull a Lopakhin and lose his nerve, how Frances will react if he does propose, and whether the doctor will put the booze down long enough to realize see that Ms. Mathieson is his last. best hope. Director Austin Pendleton, unceasingly dedicated to absolute honesty on stage, draws quietly powerful performances from a talented, committed ensemble. Alive to the subtleties of the script, the actors move with an innate awareness that every line, every beat, signals a change in their characters’ psyches. The house by the sea is, of course, a kind character in its own right, and is given a strong presence by Charles Morgan’s painterly set design, Martha Hally’s period costumes and Joshua Yocom’s props. Xavier Pierce’s fluid lighting changes underscore the play’s central metaphor; the summer sun burns brightly, then all too quickly fades.
A DAY BY THE SEA continues throughOctober 23rd, 2016 at The Beckett Theatre at Theatre Row, 410 West 42nd Street, Between 9th and 10th Avenues, New York, NY 10036. Tickets: https://www.telecharge.com/Off-Broadway/A-Day-by-the-Sea-Mint-Theater-Company/Ticket