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Theatre in Review: A Day by the Sea (Mint Theater Company)

Julian Elfer, Katie Firth. Photo Richard Termine

"It's not a clever world we live in...not a first-rate world at all," says a silken-mannered diplomat lounging on a Dorset beach, delivering bad news to a younger colleague. Humphrey Campbell is his name and he could be speaking for anyone, or everyone, in N. C. Hunter's 1953 watercolor portrait of the British upper middle class suffering from spiritual exhaustion in the postlude of World War II. The line is spoken to Julian Anson, a fortyish diplomat who has subordinated his marriage and family to a career that, he suddenly discovers, may be permanently stuck in neutral. Others in the vicinity include Frances Farrar, a widow with two children, who has seen her life hobbled -- and her soul hardened -- by scandal; Laura, Julian's mother, sailing into an old age defined by duty and pointless ritual; and Doctor Farley, a cranky old boozer who has been reduced to little more than a personal servant to the Anson family. The weather is lovely in A Day by the Sea, and the setting couldn't be more fetching, but a deep enervation has set in; even when the people on stage have the gumption to reach out for happiness, their aim is sadly misplaced.

Lines of dialogue such as the one above gave drama critics license to pigeonhole Hunter as the British answer to Anton Chekhov. It was a dubious tribute at best, one that did no favors to either playwright. There certainly are moments in A Day by the Sea that recall the Russian master -- when a desperately lonely woman publicly offers her contact information to a man who hasn't asked for it, as if to shame him into accepting it, and in the complaints of a querulous old man who, having finally settled into his chair after endless fussing, asks, "Does something happen soon?"

Nothing much does happen, but Hunter's play is not an exercise in mock-Russian melancholia; it is British to the core and thoroughly informed by the unhappy events of the 20th century. The people in A Day by the Sea are the sort whose lives should have followed the set patterns devised for men and women of their class, but decades of world upheaval have left them skittish, their faith in ordinary life shattered; they go about their daily business without much conviction, keeping on if only because there is no apparent alternative. And just when it seems that sheer torpor might take over, that indeed the entire cast of characters might drift out with the tide, Hunter subjects one or another to a sudden, sharp reckoning that makes you realize how tough-minded his little country idyll really is.

Such delicate materials need the most careful handling, and it's a good thing the Mint has engaged Austin Pendleton, a director who sifts meaning from the subtlest of details. He has assembled a cast that knows exactly how to dig under their characters' polite surfaces in search of the quiet torments that afflict them. As Julian, who has no use for lovers or friends, instead devoting himself to affairs of state, Julian Elfer looks like a human comma -- his posture permanently hunched, his arms folded, his lips firmly pressed together and turned down, as if holding back some baleful revelation only by sheer force of will. Under his brusque manner is a hair-trigger temper, a quietly coiled fury, that points to a deeper dissatisfaction. (Fed up with the world, he says, "I can assure you that sometimes, after a day's work, I have the feeling that I, that all of us, are like a lot of children absorbed in a game of marbles at the foot of a mountain, while overhead a great avalanche is beginning to rumble and slide.") And yet, as he is disabused of more than one illusion about himself -- as the possibilities of success and a sustaining love fall away -- he faces the bad news with a certain wry gallantry that is unexpectedly touching.

Julian was raised with Frances, and years earlier there was the possibility that they might one day marry; certainly Frances wanted that. Since then, however, she lost her first husband to the war and, following a succession of dead-end love affairs, entered into a misalliance with a younger, unstable admirer that ended in a suicide attempt and tabloid headlines. Katie Firth gives us a woman who, under her smooth manners, knows her best days are behind her, facing as she does the prospect of raising two young children alone, without money or connections. "I never thought I would become the sort of woman respectable people are embarrassed to meet," she says, clinically assessing her situation.

As Laura, who is saddled with caring for her elderly brother-in-law, David, and who spends her days carefully tending a home and garden that -- given Julian's lack of interest -- she will ultimately hand over to strangers, Jill Tanner presides over the company with a clear-eyed appreciation of everyone's shortcomings. ("We had such high hopes at one time," she says of Julian, before coolly warning him that lonely middle age is drawing uncomfortably near him.) And yet, when it seems that David, the biggest drain on her energy, may be seriously ill, the rush of grief and fear she feels surprises her, and us.

There are also telling contributions from George Morfogen as David, once an adventurer, now enfeebled by age and irritability; Philip Goodwin as the doctor, striding about the stage with the careful step of a drunkard, railing against the world ("I recognize civilized, intelligent persons, with whom one can reason and joke and argue. But put two million of you together, and I'd hate the sight of you!"); Polly McKie as a governess, sick and tired of surrendering children she loves to their parents and hopelessly besotted with the doctor, who doesn't know she is alive; and Sean Gormley as Humphrey, who, all smiles and reassurance, informs Julian that his posting in his beloved Paris is over, and that years spent in an obscure Whitehall office loom before him.

Charles Morgan's ingenious, attractive set places the action inside a series of picture frames draped with impressionist arrangements of tree branches. (Pendleton, taking a cue from the scenery, begins the second act, set at the beach, with the company -- just for a moment -- formally assembled as if posing for a portrait.) Xavier Pierce's lighting adds a patina of dappled sunlight. Martha Hally's costumes are typically accurate and rich in character detail. Jane Shaw's sound design brings alive the sound of the nearby ocean, in addition to providing birdsong and some appropriately wistful music.

Once again, we are in debt to the Mint for bringing to our attention a playwright we should have known better all along. (The company also did fine work with a much more obscure Hunter piece, A Picture of Autumn, a few seasons back.) Hunter's career briefly flowered in the '50s; like many others, he was left behind when John Osborne and company appeared on the scene, dismantling the West End's genteel tradition with their verbal brickbats. A Day by the Sea survives as a theatrical footnote, as the first play John Gielgud appeared in following his arrest for soliciting in a London men's room. As his biographer, Sheridan Morley, notes, the Liverpool tryout began in an agony of anxiety, with nobody certain how the audience would greet the star. As it happened, Gielgud entered to quite possibly the most tumultuous ovation of his career. Thanks to this lovely production at the Mint, however, Hunter's play has one more reason to be remembered. -- David Barbour


(26 August 2016)

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