Sunday, October 23, 2016

Theater Review: N.C. Hunter’s ‘A Day by the Sea,’ From the Mint Theater Co.

Over the last half-dozen years, I’ve come to rely on the Mint Theater Company to present wonderfully staged productions of unfairly forgotten plays. But a second rental increase in three years forced this jewel of the Off-Broadway theater scene out of the West 43rd Street building it had called home for the last two decades. Fortunately, it found another domicile only a block south, on West 42nd Street, in the Beckett Theater on Theatre Row.

Five other theater companies share space in the complex with the Mint, but for playgoers, it is a more comfortable, pleasant environment. At the same time, the space still allows playgoers the feeling of eavesdropping on a very small group of people—an essential quality in sustaining the aura surrounding its current production, a revival of N.C. Hunter’s serio-comedy of the 1950s, A Day by the Sea.

This is not the first time that the Mint has turned its attention to Hunter: A couple of years ago, it mounted another success of his on London’s West End, A Picture of Autumn. But now, with this production, it is making a sustained case for taking him seriously and reviving his reputation once and for all.

A Day by the Sea focuses on Julian Anson, a stuffy, workaholic mid-level Foreign Service diplomat,
who finds himself, after two decades of ceaseless striving, in becalmed waters. Taking a break from his posting in Paris to visit his mother at her seaside home, he discovers that an expected promotion won’t be coming to him after all. The rejection leads him to intense self-examination about his shallow private life as well, a process only magnified by the arrival of his childhood friend Frances.

At first glance, Frances would seem exactly what Anson would not want: a widow with two young children who had become the kind of scandalous woman that respectable people run away from. She had worshipped Anson until her late teens, when, realizing his focus on college and his career path had become all-consuming, she ran away to marry a much older man who had since died. More recently, against her better judgment, she wed a younger man who killed himself. His suicide note, forgiving her, was printed in the newspapers, making her notorious.

Anson’s late recognition of her love—and his determination to make amends for his long-ago neglect—leads him to think he can reshape their future by taking up where they left off. But matters are not so simple, as Hunter considers the sad impossibility of returning to the past.

The interplay among the characters here is deeply sensitive and nuanced, and one gets the distinct impression from reading about Hunter that this play is all of a piece with his other work. But so deeply has Hunter been forgotten by the theater world that one is stunned to find that once he was very highly regarded indeed—that is, until Kenneth Tynan dealt a grievous blow to his reputation.

The strong influence of Anton Chekhov in Hunter’s work especially provoked the British drama critic. A Day by the Sea seems almost tailor-made for this criticism, with several elements suggesting the playwright’s particular attention to Uncle Vanya:

*It depicts a middle-aged male’s melancholy upon abruptly realizing that his life’s work doesn’t really amount to much;

*It features a doctor of great intellectual gifts who is increasingly lapsing into alcohol; 

*A plain but kind woman pines helplessly for the doctor;

*An attractive woman causes the males around her to lose their minds;

*An elderly man wakes up periodically to say comic, often inappropriate things;

*The playwright presciently worries about both man’s encroachment on nature and an unseen but sensed upheaval in the future of his nation (for Chekhov, a revolution that will destroy the aristocracy; for Hunter, the Suez crisis that marked the end of Great Britain as an imperial power).

Far more than other contemporary West End practitioners of the “well-made play” like Noel Coward and Terence Rattigan, Hunter suffered grievously at the hands of Tynan, who championed the “angry young man,” often fiercely political theater of John Osborne. It didn’t help that Hunter's stress on character development rather than plot make for a pace that can charitably be described as leisurely. 

The latter fault has not disappeared. But the strength of the play also appears more readily than Tynan gave it credit for: naturalistic dialogue that gives virtually the entire cast of 10 at least one opportunity to sharply define the laconically expressed but very real disappointment of middle-class characters who sense that, like the tide, the promise of their early lives has ebbed. 

Much of this is due to veteran actor-playwright-director Austin Pendleton, who has demonstrated his range convincingly this fall by staging another British play from the Fifties vastly different in tone from this one: Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey, at the Pearl Theater Co.

Pendleton has elicited striking performances from his cast. Julian Elfer subtly marks out Anson’s transformation from buttoned-down bureaucrat (someone with “a lot of porridge in his veins,” according to his own mother) to a more questing figure who tries to recapture his youthful sense of confidence, purpose and idealism. Katie Firth renders Frances with a dignity and realism about her severely constricted choices after a series of life mistakes. 

Polly McKie brings poignancy to the role of the affectionate but lovelorn 35-year-old governess to Frances’ children, seeing in the prospect of marriage to hard-drinking Dr. Farley a last chance for both of them. And, as the doctor, Philip Goodwin unleashes a ferocious rhetorical outburst that at once castigates diplomats for the failures that result in war, explaining much about his personal downward spiral. 
A Day by the Sea closes this coming Sunday. Once again, the Mint has done well by a theatrical work that has been inexplicably and shamefully consigned to the margins.

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