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Days to Come

Theatre Review by Michael Portantiere - August 26, 2018

Larry Bull and Chris Henry Coffey
Photo by Todd Cerveris

It's interesting to debate just where Lillian Hellman's reputation as a playwright stands as compared to her contemporaries in terms of quality, prolificity, and also revivability. The Little Foxes, that nest of venal Southern vipers, has proven to be an enduring classic, never long absent from the world's stages. (Last year's Broadway revival with Laura Linney and Cynthia Nixon alternating in the two female leads was a deserved hit.) But several other Hellman plays that were highly regarded and successful in their day — The Children's Hour, Watch on the Rhine, Toys in the Attic, et al. — are infrequently revived, presumably because they're perceived to be dated and/or otherwise flawed in significant ways. As for Hellman's book for the musical Candide, that has been suppressed for decades, according to her own wishes (although I think I just found the complete or near-complete text online, with the help of our friend Google).

And then we have Days to Come, something of a footnote even among Hellman aficionados and scholars. This family drama about labor strife in a small Midwestern town managed no more than a seven-performance run on Broadway in 1936, and according to the notes for the current Mint Theater Company production, its sole New York revival to date was by the WPA Theater in 1978. The Hellman-fan friend of mine with whom I attended the Mint show said it was the only one of her plays that he had never seen staged, and I daresay we were both very much looking forward to it.

Sorry to say, this is no unearthed treasure. In crafting a Big Issue work, an author can make the mistake of hammering home ideological points at the expense of character development. Hellman made almost the opposite error in Days to Come, which spends comparatively little time dealing with the plight of the striking workers and, instead, devolves for much of its length into a poorly written domestic drama — or, rather, melodrama. Turns out there are major, unresolved issues and secrets among the Rodman family that have nothing to do with the labor-strife plot, including serial spousal infidelity apparently resulting from a combination of the wife's nymphomania (as it used to be called) and the husband's "weakness" (possibly also his latent homosexuality, or so it is vaguely implied). Whereas the personal peccadilloes and neuroses of the Hubbards and Giddenses only enrich the script of The Little Foxes, here we have a very different, counterproductive situation.

Probably due to both the flawed writing and a lack of strong guidance from director J.R. Sullivan, the Mint production of Days to Come is inconsistently well acted. On the plus side, Larry Bull offers a nuanced characterization of the conflicted Andrew Rodman, scion and now head of the family that owns the brush factory where the workers are out on strike; Roderick Hill emanates strength and charisma as labor leader Leo Whalen; and Dan Daily as Sam Wilkie, Geoffrey Allen Murphy as Mossie Dowel, and Evan Zes as Joe Easter present vivid portraits of three strike breakers from out of town. But the normally reliable Mary Bacon overplays the mental instability of Andrew's sister, Cora; Jennie Brookshire lacks a sense of period style as his wife, Julie; and the moving performance of Chris Henry Coffey as Thomas Firth, the only one of the striking workers whom we get to meet, is marred by the inaudibility of several of his lines.

If Days to Come has turned out to be a disappointment insofar as playability of the text, the production design is up to the Mint's excellent standard. Harry Feiner's gorgeous set for the living room of the Rodman home is so well appointed that, whenever the drama becomes turgid and/or boring, you can enjoy yourself by examining the exquisite scenic details — the furniture fabrics, matching wallpaper and curtains, beautifully framed photographs and mirrors, bric-a-brac displayed in a hutch at stage left (props by Joshua Yocom), and the lovely, sylvan backdrop visible through the glass doors upstage center. This main set takes up the entirety of the Beckett Theatre stage, and if you read your program before the show or during intermission, you 'll wonder how the transition to Act II, Scene 1 in another location — "an office-room, the empty side of a store in an alley" — will be made. No spoiler here, but suffice to say that it's wonderfully well done, smoothly and quickly.

As may be guessed from the fact that this play's premiere production closed in a week, the reviews were not good; Brooks Atkinson in The New York Times opined that "Making a spiritual tragedy out of a labor impasse is something Miss Hellman is not able to do. Days to Come is fairly tortured by the effort of trying." Maya Cantu's program notes tell us that the 1978 Off-Broadway revival prompted a more positive reassessment of the piece in some quarters, with Harold Clurman, for example, suggesting in The Nation that 1930s critics had misunderstood what Hellman was trying to create. The Mint staging should be seen if only for its rarity — and, while you're checking off that box, you can decide whose side you're on. My feeling is that, in the canon of management-labor conflict plays ranging from Clifford Odets' Waiting for Lefty to Lynn Nottage's Sweat, and including the operatic The Cradle Will Rock as well as such lighter-fare musicals as The Pajama Game and Newsies, this one ranks pretty low on the satisfaction meter.

Days to Come
Through October 6
Beckett Theater, 410 West 42nd between 9th & 10th Avenues
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Telecharge

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