The Mint Theater Company is presenting A Day by the Sea in a first New York revival of the N.C. Hunter play. In the hands of the prodigiously talented director Austin Pendleton and his acutely gifted cast, with assistance from Charles Morgan’s scenic design, Martha Hally’s costume design, Xavier Pierce’s lighting design and Jane Shaw’s sound design, we get to appreciate a superb production of a play that has long faded from memory.
After seeing the Mint’s revival, one wonders why it has not been unearthed and brought to stage lights sooner. The play is marvelous. Pendleton and his cast tease out what is most salient and profound in the work and through their efforts, Hunter’s themes retain currency and timelessness.
The playwright’s beautifully constructed three acts speed by because of the acting ensemble’s uncanny, in-the-moment presence shepherded by Pendleton’s pinpoint attention to the specificity of character development. As a result we feel we are beyond mere acquaintance with these individuals. We are able to both laugh and shake our heads at our rueful recognition of who they are. Yet, we somehow find them heartfelt, humorous and lovely despite their triggering issues. And all of Hunter’s tropes about human nature that we can identify with come alive and become less painful in the resemblance.
For in witnessing Julian Anson (Julian Elfer), Doctor Farley (Philip Goodwin’s rants are wonderful), Laura Anson (Jill Tanner), David Anson (George Morfogen), Frances Farrar (Katie Firth), Miss Mathieson (Polly McKie), Humphrey Caldwell (Sean Gormley), and William Gregson (Curzon Dobell), we become keen to ourselves: the follies and fantasies, the errors of youth, the misplaced emphasis on what is impermanent and rather meaningless, the wasted work hours that go nowhere, the bitterness and regret that come with the shame of a life misspent, loss, the inability to leap forward to believe in a new day, and the irrepressible joy of youth and hope for tomorrow.
Outright, A Day by the Sea is a play of monumental humanity and searing elegance with a soupçon of well-placed humor brought about by the exquisite performances of the nephew, uncle and mother of the Anson family: Julian Elfer’s portrayal modulates beautifully, George Morfogen and Jill Tanner are sumptuously funny and painstakingly authentic. The title motif, which on the surface imbues all the charm of a relaxing, scenic and peaceful universe, is turned on its head as the day waxes on the family’s bucolic seaside estate, which is a little slice of heaven apart from the less-than-peaceful inner emotional states of the guests and the Ansons in this phase of their existence.
As Hunter channels the crowning arc of the play’s development into its conflicts, he unveils how the life, purpose and meaning of Julian’s career disappear in the “twinkling of an eye,” indeed, right before his perplexed and shocked eyes, when Humphrey Caldwell from Personnel (Sean Gormley in a fine turn), tells Julian he is being recalled from his Foreign Office assignment in Paris. Julian is a self-absorbed 40-year-old diplomat who would embrace king and country to his death, but will have to settle for being the First Foreign Secretary at the bottom of the ladder of sublime success in a pompous career his mother disapproves of. Julian watches the vanishing greatness of his arduous life’s work crumble at a family beach picnic to which Caldwell has been invited along with house guests and staff.
The pleasant outing, primarily set up for the children of Frances Farrar, a friend from long ago, turns into a fiasco for the adults. Amidst the innocent frolic of Toby (Athan Sporek) and Elinor Eddison (Kylie McVey), we experience the echoes of adult regrets and gnawing complaints at life’s reproaches, during which the alcoholic, world-weary Doctor and the accountant Gregson sneak off to get drunk; elderly, self-pronounced “age useless” Uncle David begins to collapse under the sun’s intensity; and a regret-beleaguered, twice-married Frances notes the jealousy of 30-something, unmarried Miss Mathieson (Polly McKie is spot-on as Matty), whom we later learn she would gladly trade places with. Miss Mathieson makes an indirect marriage proposal to the Doctor which is as surprising as it is not, considering who both are. It is in this act we learn of each character’s underpinnings and hypocrisies, portrayed quietly and matter-of-factly in the human drama which Hunter unpretentiously slips into our laps.
Hunter’s most brilliant element of characterization is elucidating the happenstance interactions between and among the characters whose dynamic together creates the atmosphere for one-of-a-kind revelations which can never happen again because of the time and the serene, lovely, natural setting that fomented their awakening. (The Gerard Manley Hopkins lines quoted at the outset of the play suggest this wonderful theme). The characters’ honesty with each other frames their potential for growth in the next chapter of their lives, though perhaps that bit of growth will die off like a withered plant. Conclusions are uncertain.
This is especially so for Frances (Firth is appropriately strained and reservedly sad-aspected) and Julian who might have had a lasting relationship if Julian’s eyes had not been opened to this too late, and if Frances could expiate all the bitterness and pain of the ending of her second marriage which precipitated her young husband’s failed suicide attempt. It is also so for the Doctor and Miss Mathieson, who might have formed a beneficial relationship but for the Doctor’s reliance on alcohol and his self-destructive “realism” and martyrdom in choosing to bear his addiction instead of overthrowing it. In this exceptional Hunter play we are in the realm of “this too shall pass,” but always in the passing, there is the continuance.
The next chapter in the lives of the characters we will only be able to imagine. Their final goodbyes to each other and their interactions during the day, which created a dynamic like no other, are over by the play’s conclusion. However, there is one relationship which will be allowed to blossom in the beauty of the Anson gardens, a familial one. With Hunter, whose gentle realism and life tones which Pendleton and the ensemble so magnificently capture, Hollywood endings don’t happen but the running threads of what is most precious and immutable in life’s treasured, truthful moments do. In that lies the joy and the sorrow, “a tear and a smile,” making for great theater.
A Day by the Sea is the Mint’s first production as a resident theater company at Theatre Row. Performances continue through September 24 at the Beckett Theatre (410 West 42nd Street between 9th and Dyer Avenues).