In its original West End production in 1953, A Day by the Sea by N.C. Hunter, one of England’s most successful 20th-century playwrights, starred John Gielgud (who also directed), Sybil Thorndike, Ralph Richardson, and Irene Worth. Not too shabby. It ran for 386 performances, a splendid success in those days.
But soon thereafter, eclipsed by a subsequent generation of dramatists who looked with distaste on stuffy stories of the ancien régime, Hunter fell out of favor and into obscurity.
New Yorkers are fortunate that the Mint Theater Company is giving Hunter’s works a mini-revival. Its 2013 production of A Picture of Autumn is now followed by a fine new staging of A Day by the Sea at the company’s new home on Theatre Row.
The play centers on the scion of a faded landed-gentry family as he approaches middle age. Julian Anson (Julian Elfer) is experiencing a personal and professional crisis. His career in the Foreign Service has stagnated, even though he has devoted all his energies to his work at the expense of marriage or any real personal satisfaction.
Yet the most telling line of the first part of the play is spoken not by the touchy, buttoned-up Julian, but by Frances Farrar (Katie Firth), his old playmate, who grew up with him in the Anson house and is back for a visit after 20 years and two unsuccessful marriages. Watching her two children play, she observes that it’s “as if one were watching one’s own ghost.” How apt, if illogical, a simile for the situation both she and Julian are in.
As Julian has pursued his career abroad, his mother Laura (Jill Tanner) has presided over the house and estate – enthusiastically over the garden, grudgingly over her aged brother-in-law David (a funny and touching turn by George Morfogen). It all really belongs to Julian, but he has shown no interest in it; Laura is sure he’ll hurry to sell it and be rid of the bother as soon as she dies. Julian’s visit coinciding with Frances’s, together with an unexpected development in his career, turns a family outing to the beach into a moment of decisive revelation for Julian.
Directed with precision and grace by Austin Pendleton on Charles Morgan’s lovely sets, the superb cast brings to warm life this world of dimmed elegance with its lingering divide between the privileged and servant classes, its relics of empire evoked by Uncle David’s endless tales of climbing expeditions in remote lands, and its postwar bitterness personified in the acid-tongued Dr. Farley (Philip Goodwin), who over his many years as hired caregiver/companion for David – and since the loss of his only son in World War II –
has descended into a perpetually drunken state of anger.
Elfer gives Julian’s face a persistent, painfully tight expression that contrasts with Frances’s quiet composure and Laura’s fussy but fundamentally warmhearted elegance. Philosophically he insists on an optimistic view of humanity’s future – “I cannot believe that man is doomed to destroy himself” – while ironically he has gone a long way toward destroying his own self.
The characters’ outside-world concerns resonate surprisingly in tune with today’s crises of war, terrorist violence, and threats of fascistic resurgence in the West. It’s fascinating to view these parallels in a play from the 1950s that focuses on the lingering echoes of the world today’s Americans have come to know anew through Downton Abbey.
“I’m changed. Just cold and old,” Frances says at the end as the reunion breaks up amid a pall of gloom that we begin to think will be the play’s final statement. But Julian’s crisis by the shore has turned a fresh page for him. Much as Downton Abbey ended on a hopeful note, Julian gains a fresh perspective on his inheritance and his life. We can’t know what will happen to him, or the estate, in the long run. But the end of the world it’s not.
Among the excellent supporting cast, Polly McKie is especially fine as a frumpy governess as desperate for male companionship as she is beloved by her young charges. Sean Gormley is drolly convincing as a pragmatic Foreign Service official who would have looked quite at home in an early James Bond movie. Curzon Dobell as the estate manager is the quintessential meek functionary with fire inside; his inner demons fly when Doctor Farley takes him out for “one glass of beer.” And Kylie McVey and Athan Sporek are charming as the children.
If N. C. Hunter’s work has been forgotten, it’s wrongly so. A Day by the Sea proves it. It runs through September 24 at the Beckett Theatre at Theatre Row.