If a play reads like Chekhov, sounds like Chekhov and looks like Chekhov, can it be anything but one of the Russian master’s 14 plays?
Yes, indeed. It could be N.C. Hunter’s A DAY BY THE SEA, which manages to be Chekovian in feel and yet be its own fine drama.
Starting in 1953, Hunter’s play ran a year in London; two years later it came to Broadway and stayed all of three weeks.
Luckily, New York is getting another chance, thanks to the always industrious Mint Theater Company at its new home on Theatre Row. The play’s aged Uncle David says “When you’re old, no one knows what to do with you.” But Mint producing artistic director Jonathan Bank, director Austin Pendleton and their top-notch cast certainly knew what to do with this sixty-three-year-old neglected gem.
Hunter was, along with Noel Coward and Terence Rattigan, one of those elite English drawing-room dramatists undone by the “angry young men” playwrights who invaded London in the mid- ‘50s. That’s why generations of even ardent British theatergoers haven’t heard of him. A DAY BY THE SEA shows he’s definitely worth rediscovering.
But like Chekov’s plays, this is a quiet, three-act, three hour exercise that will never be confused with an action movie. Early on, Uncle David asks that a story be read to him, but soon after the reader starts, he blurts out “Does something happen soon?” Hunter was slyly giving a pre-emptive strike for those who might condemn him for not writing a plot-heavy play.
While there’s drawing-room quality dialogue, we’re instead in dowager Laura Anson’s garden in Acts One and Three, and, as the title indicates, at the seashore in Act Two.
Frances Farrar has come to Laura (the extraordinary Jill Tanner) for a much-needed rest. While there is said to be a template for a woman’s romantic life – she marries her first husband for love, her second for security and her third for companionship — Frances upended the sequence. She first went for security with an older man who later died. Next came a much younger man for companionship, which seemed to be a good idea at the time but ultimately wasn’t satisfying.
And what about love? Yes, Frances did have strong feelings for Laura’s son Julian. But in those days, a woman did not dare to reveal such feelings; she had to wait for him to make the first move.
The only move that interested Julian was up the career ladder. For years, he’s been a workaholic in the foreign service. A surprising turn of events gives him pause and allows him to consider time for love and Frances.
We often hear about a person getting a big career break because he was at the right place at the right time. Hunter reminds us that for friends to become lovers and see their fondness blossom into genuine love, there must be a right place and right time, too. The playwright reminds us that there’s a certain shelf-life and expiration date on any potential relationship.
Although Hunter does establish that young English women at mid-century had to be shrinking violets, he suggests that older ones aren’t as inclined to wither. So Miss Mathieson (the very grounded Polly McKie), the governess to Frances’ two young children, blatantly proposes to Doctor Farley (a wonderfully unmannered Philip Goodwin). The lady knows that he’s no bargain, but a new life – any new life – will be preferable to the one where “I take care of kids who leave.”
There’s Hunter’s strength: the line that makes your mouth open with awe and reminds you that you’re in the company of a first-class writer.
Exhibit A: Frances talks about her first husband whom she seldom saw because he worked on the road. How did his death affect her? “I wrote one fewer letter every week,” she says with a semblance of a shrug.
Exhibit B: Julian looks back on his career and observes “I’ve been in America, Sweden, Italy, France — and all I’ve touched in each place is another office desk, a different sort of inkpot.”
A lesser writer would have had Frances say “No, I didn’t miss my husband after he died” and Julian note “I never took advantage of what each place had to offer.” Not Hunter.
For those who insist that any play over a couple of years old is automatically dated, how about the sequence where Uncle David predicts global warming? He, by the way, is played by George Morfogen, long a master at playing crustiness. It’s a scene-stealing part, but Katie Firth as Frances and Julian Elfer as Julian never forget that the play centers around them.
She has a wonderfully appropriate world-weariness about her; he manages to show us that Julian has long been imprisoned in an invisible cocoon and now, after a lifetime of contentedly staying in it, he’s ready to emerge.
It’s simply but beautifully designed by Charles Morgan. The second act starts with a tableau of which Georges Seurat – and Anton Chekhov – would approve.
The Russian playwright might also smile at a nice homage.
Remember how he had Vershinin in THE THREE SISTERS predict that “in two or three hundred years’ time, life on this earth will be unimaginably beautiful and wonderful”? Julian’s boss Humphrey (a business-like but not unfeeling Sean Gormley) ups the estimate to five hundred. The jury is still out on both predictions, although Humphrey’s may be the more realistic of the two.
Whatever the case, another of Hunter’s messages is that time passes before we realize it. With a September 24th closing on the horizon, you don’t have that many days left to spend A DAY BY THE SEA.