Friday, August 26, 2016

A DAY BY THE SEA: Chekhov with a British Twist

Julian Elfer and Jill Tanner
Photo by Richard Termine

There is more than a little Chekhov in N. C. Hunter’s 1953 play A Day By The Sea, and so it is most fitting that director Austin Pendleton is on hand to helm this rare production by the Mint Theater Company, that great restorer of lost theatrical treasures now ensconced at its new home at the Beckett Theatre at Theatre Row.

Pendleton, who has directed Three Sisters, Uncle Vanya, and Ivanov for the Classic Stage Company, has mined this paean to the regrets and follies of middle age for all its worth. The acting is excellent, as are the production values – set, costumes, lighting, and sound.  Praise-worthy all.   

But before I heap on any further plaudits, let me warn you. It is long (nearly three hours, with three acts and two intermissions), and not a lot happens, at least not as you may have come to expect in terms of the rise and fall of conflict and resolution. More than a few audience members disappeared after the first act, which, to be honest, seems determined to out-Chekhov Chekhov, what with its rambling speeches and diatribes that do precious little to move the story forward. It’s almost as if Hunter were saying – “You want Chekhov?  I’ll give you Chekhov!" Here's an alcoholic doctor straight out of Uncle Vanya; a mother disappointed in her son, straight out of The Seagull; a confused old man living on his memories, straight out of The Cherry Orchard. There are probably other recognizable connections you can make as well, 

But if you are patient and come back after that first break, you’ll find that Act II and Act III are ever so much more engaging, poignant, and often surprisingly funny. Here’s Hunter saying, “OK, now take a look at my British twist on the old Russian master!”  The parade of characters who were barely distinguishable from one another (there are ten of them) suddenly burst out in their individuality, and, as it turns out, there is a central story after all. 

Julian Elfer, Philip Goodwin, and George Morfogen
Photo by Richard Termine

A Day By The Sea takes place at the home of Laura Anson (Jill Tanner) in the Southwest of England, along the English Channel in Dorset. Laura lives there permanently, occasionally joined by her son Julian (Julian Elfer), a member of the British diplomatic corps stationed in Paris. Also living with her is her octogenarian brother-in-law David (George Morfogen) and an attendant physician, the heavy-drinking unreliable Dr. Farley (Philip Goodwin).  

This summer, there are some additional guests: Frances (Katie Firth), an old family friend who is taking refuge after a scandalous divorce, along with her children – daughter Elinor (Kylie McVey) and son Toby (Athan Sporek) – in tow with their governess, Miss Mathieson (Polly McKie).  Two other characters who pop in from time to time are the family solicitor (Curzon Dobell) and Julian’s boss in the Foreign Office (Sean Gormley).

As you might imagine, it does take a bit of time and work to sort everyone out.  But eventually we settle on Julian’s story. At the age of 40, he is confronted with the realization that his career is heading nowhere and that his life has been one of wasted and unappreciated efforts and lost opportunities.

The biggest loss, at least as he is able to discern it, was the possibility of marriage to Frances. Once close friends, it turns out she was in love with him for the longest time, while he was oblivious and focused on his career. Though they went their separate ways two decades earlier, Julian permits himself to imagine that he can rekindle the spark of their youthful potential. Surely it is love that will rescue him from sinking into a life of quiet anguish, an emotional vortex that has already grabbed hold of the desperately lonely Miss Mathieson. Everyone, it seems, clings to hope, however unlikely it is to bear fruit. 

That, in a nutshell, is A Day By The Sea, an accumulation of missed opportunities, unrequited love, foolish expectations, and dashed dreams. It is not an easy play by any means, but it is a significant work that will resonate with anyone who has had to shelve an ambition or wrestle with accepting what is rather than mooning over what might have been. Mr. Pendleton, the Mint, and the entire company of actors have done a great service in restoring this neglected work. 

Special kudos, too, to the frame-within-a-frame-within-a-frame set design by Charles Morgan that perfectly captures the feel of the seaside locale; the lighting by Xavier Pierce that recreates the summer sun; the just-right period costumes by Martha Hally, and Jane Shaw's wonderfully modulated sound design (lots of seabirds and relentless ocean waves quietly underpin the action). 

Bravo, Mint.  You've done your mission proud!

Feel free to share this blog with your friends, and to offer up your own theater stories by posting a comment. I also invite you to check out the website Show-Score.Com, where you will find capsule reviews of current plays from Yours Truly and many other New York critics.  

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

TROILUS AND CRESSIDA: War and Lechery Reign Supreme in the Public Theater’s Grandly-Realized Shakespeare In The Park Production

Cast Photo by Jennifer Broski

A veritable Who’s Who of the Trojan War is onstage in the Public Theater’s revelatory, thrilling, and thoroughly engaging production of William Shakespeare’s seldom-seen “problem play,” Troilus and Cressida, at Central Park’s open air Delacorte Theater  or as it is generally referred to, Shakespeare In The Park.  

There they are, divided into two camps, those characters whose fame has lived on for centuries. Among those familiar to us on the Trojan side are King Priam and his children:  daughter Cassandra, gifted with the power of prophecy and condemned never to be listened to; son Paris, whose abduction of Helen started the damn war in the first place; and their brother, the mighty warrior Hector. On the Greek side you’ve got such notables as Agamemnon, Commander of the Army; Menelaus, Agamemnon’s brother and cuckolded husband of Helen; and the legendary warriors Ulysses, Ajax, and Achilles.

The first thing you should know about the play is this: The title characters are but pawns in the game that is the Trojan War. They get together after some manipulative goading by Cressida’s sleazy uncle Pandarus (portrayed in a wonderfully comic and icky performance by John Glover), whose syphilis-riddled body appears to fall apart before our eyes as the evening progresses.

The delightfully starry-eyed scenes between Troilus (Andrew Burnap) and Cressida (Ismenia Mendes) argue convincingly that they deserve a romantic Shakespearean comedy of their own. But, alas, after one night of lusty love-making, Cressida is tagged in a prisoner exchange that tears them apart and sends her to the Greeks. And while the lovers pledge faithfulness, Cressida is in no position to keep that promise; she protects herself from being passed among the soldiers as a camp whore by hooking up with Diomedes (Zach Appelman), who at least will protect her. (Try explaining that to the stiff-necked Troilus, however). 

Much of the play focuses on the war, which has been going on for seven years. The Greeks are in disarray. Their one-time hero Achilles (a strong performance by Louis Cancelmi, a last-minute replacement for an injured David Harbour) has long since stepped down from the battle. He can mostly be found goofing off and romping in bed with his boyfriend Patroclus (Tom Pecinka).

Ulysses (Corey Stoll) concocts a scheme with General Agamemnon (John Douglas Thompson) to goad Achilles into one-on-one combat with Hector (Bill Heck),  the Trojan champion. But Achilles refuses to take the proffered bait, and it is the doofus Ajax (played in all-out surfer dude glory by Alex Breaux) who takes up the challenge. When Hector polishes him off (while sparing his life), war resumes at full tilt. Eventually, Achilles takes up arms once more and here we go again. 

Past audiences may have been confused by the play's mix of romance, dark comedy, and war, but Troilus and Cressida is truly and thoroughly modern in its jaundiced view of human follies and foibles. As the reluctant and cynical soldier Thersites (a terrific Max Casella) declares, all is “war and lechery.” This is the prevailing theme of the play, and Shakespeare provides the concluding exclamation mark as John Glover faces the audience and promises to “bequeathe you my diseases.” 

This production – so well directed by Daniel Sullivan and blessed with a cast of some two dozen top-notch actors – makes the case for Troilus and Cressida as one of the great Shakespeare dramas, often puzzled over but hardly ever seen. The plot unfolds with clarity, and while Sullivan employs modernisms (laptop computers and contemporary military uniforms and weapons), he completely honors Shakespeare’s language, and the wonderful performances make it accessible to our ears. Unless you are gunshot-phobic (the sounds of battle are pervasive), grab a ticket if you can.  You are unlikely to see as good in the foreseeable future.  

Feel free to share this blog with your friends, and to offer up your own theater stories by posting a comment. I also invite you to check out the new website Show-Score.Com, where you will find capsule reviews of current plays from Yours Truly and many other New York critics.