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A Day by the Sea

Theatre Review by Michael Portantiere - August 25, 2016

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

The program for the Mint Theater Company's production of N.C. Hunter's A Day by the Sea tells us that the author "took his place among the leading British dramatists of the 1950s," but it's fair to say that the man's name and his work are largely or completely unfamiliar to U.S. theatergoers — even the oldest of the oldsters among us. The Internet Broadway Database ( lists only one production of one of Hunter's plays — and it happens to have been A Day by the Sea, presented in the fall of 1955 at the ANTA Theatre (now the August Wilson) for a total of 24 performances, with a cast led by Hume Cronyn, Jessica Tandy, Aline McMahon, and Dennis King, under the direction of Cedric Hardwicke. If that's not starry enough for you, the original West End production of the play was headlined by John Gielgud (who also directed), Ralph Richardson, Irene Worth, and Dame Sybil Thorndike!

Now, the Mint is giving us the opportunity to see what it is about the play that attracted such superb artists. A Day by the Sea's three acts (!!!) unfold in the garden of the Dorset home of Laura Anson (Jill Tanner), and on a nearby beach, over the course of one day and the following morning in May, 1953. The central character is Laura's adult son, Julian (played by an actor also named Julian, but with the surname Elfer). He's a tightly-wound foreign service employee who, in the first scene of Act II, suddenly encounters a major setback in his career trajectory.

How the 40-year-old Julian (Anson, not Elfer) deals with the mid-life crisis brought about by this setback is the crux of the play, but there are several subplots involving several other characters — rather too many of both, some might say. Quite a bit of attention is focused on the alcoholic, acerbic Dr. Farley (Philip Goodwin), who is kept in the family's employ for reasons that are difficult to divine other than the theory that "dysfunction seeks dysfunction." Farley's primary purpose is to tend to Laura's elderly and infirm brother-in-law David (George Morfogen), but this has all the markings of one of those "physician, heal thyself!" situations. Though Farley is quite a mess, he somehow becomes the unrequited love object of Miss Mathieson (Polly McKie), governess to the two young children of the visiting Frances Farrar (Katie Firth), a woman who had been taken in by Laura Anson as a refugee child and who therefore grew up (and fell in love) with Julian — who went off to school and left her with a broken heart, prompting Frances to marry a much older man and then, after he died, to wed a much younger man in an obvious if unconscious attempt to recapture the young love she felt for Julian....

As the above synopsis indicates, A Day by the Sea covers a lot of ground. The play's length and its three-act structure seem ill advised, and at least one of the 10 characters seems entirely superfluous. Most of the subplots and interrelationships between the characters are interesting in themselves, but they are not woven together very well by the playwright — a flaw exacerbated in the Mint production by the flaccid direction of Austin Pendleton.

In an odd misstep for someone with many years of experience as both an actor and director, Pendleton here seems to have concentrated more on blocking and stage business than helping the cast connect with the text and with each other. More than once during the course of the production, he has instructed or allowed the actors to commit a stage crime that lies somewhere within the felony range: Two actors/characters hold a very intense, highly emotional discussion while one of them seems to be completely distracted by something else — for example, reading a newspaper — and so makes little or no eye contact with the person to whom he's speaking. This sort of thing strikes me as so jarringly unnatural that it can only be explained by the director having gotten into his head the wrongheaded notion that everyone on stage always needs to be "doing" something, rather than sometimes simply focusing on and talking directly to one or more of the other actors when nothing more is called for.

In the role of Julian Anson, Elfer has the challenge of believably playing a huge character arc that's supposed to occur in less than 24 hours' time. He does a fine job of it, but I expect his work would have been even more laudable with better directorial guidance. Goodwin offers a highly idiosyncratic portrayal of Dr. Farley that's entertaining in its way but doesn't help the audience make sense of the character; in fact, it has rather the opposite effect. Tanner and Morfogen are happily cast and very good in their roles. Sean Gormley is excellent as the fellow who comes to deliver the bad news about Julian's career, Curzon Dobell is fine as the guy who really doesn't need to be there, and Kylie McVey and Athan Sporek are cute as Frances' kids.

The best performances of the lot come from McKie as Miss Mathieson and Firth as Frances, though even they could have used a couple of pointers from Pendleton. SPOILER AHEAD: Very near the end of the play, Frances, who was desperately in love with Julian in their youth, makes the difficult decision to reject his proposal to become her third husband and the father of her two young children. Didn't it occur to the actress or the director that the woman might give a sad look back at Julian just before her final exit or, conversely, that she might leave quickly and without a backward glance but with tears in her eyes, rather than calmly and composedly walking off stage left as if nothing major had happened?

Whatever flaws exist in the show's direction and some details of the performances, the Mint has given A Day by the Sea a typically gorgeous, thoroughly professional production. Charles Morgan's picture-frames-within-picture-frames sets for the garden and the beach couldn't be lovelier, nor could Martha Hally's costumes and Xavier Pierce's lighting be any closer to perfect for this piece. Amy Stoller has lovingly and skillfully tended to the cast's dialects; the only actor who doesn't sound 100 percent credibly British is George Morfogen, but that's forgivable because...he's George Morfogen. Jane Shaw's sound and music provide the perfect ambience, and Robert-Charles Vallance does his usual expert wig & hair design work.

Beginning with this production, The Mint is now in residence at the Beckett Theatre, Theatre Row, after many years in its previous home in a cramped space on the upper floor of a building on West 43rd Street. This is very happy news overall, but I would advise the company to raise the deck of the stage about a foot for future shows, if possible, in order to improve the sightlines.

A Day by the Sea
Through September 24
Mint Theater Company at the Beckett Theater, 410 West 42nd between 9th & 10th Avenues
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Telecharge

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