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.  

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