Theater

A Study in British Upper-Class Stagnation Gets a Moment in Today’s Sun

by

“How much longer are
we going to sit here?”
grouses an elderly uncle to the country-house clan gathered for a seaside picnic. Many in the 2016 audiences for the Mint Theater’s revival of the British playwright N.C. Hunter’s 1953 work, A Day by the Sea, may share his irritation. Maybe New York audiences back then shared it too: Produced on Broadway in 1955, with Hume Cronyn, Jessica Tandy, and Aline MacMahon heading the cast, A Day by the Sea eked out a meager 24 performances.

Yet Hunter’s play isn’t precisely boring. Or, let’s say, its boringness isn’t a simple matter: As the line quoted above indicates, Hunter knows that his people are dull and his dramatic action sluggish. Indeed, his principal character, Julian Anson (Julian Elfer), heir to the country house in question, is a mid-level Foreign Office bureaucrat who will never rise to ambassadorial rank. His earnestly idealistic, workaholic personality bores his colleagues: He doesn’t relax enough to be a good diplomat.

Julian’s non-promotion is one of many significant events that don’t occur while Hunter’s inaction winds through its three languid hours, with two intermissions.
Julian also doesn’t marry his childhood sweetheart, Frances (Katie Firth), who has retreated to the shelter of his family’s placid manse after becoming a tabloid-media
target because of a messy divorce-with-complications. The alcoholic doctor (Philip Goodwin), employed to look after Julian’s testy old Uncle David (George Morfogen, deliciously crusty), doesn’t sober up, but also doesn’t get the sack. Additionally, in the play’s most touching scene, he displays great wisdom by not marrying the dowdy but much younger governess (Polly McKie) of Frances’s children, who’s taken a desperate fancy to him. And Julian’s mother, Laura (elegant Jill Tanner), an intriguing mix of vacillation and indomitable decisiveness, doesn’t get whatever it was she thought
she wanted, from life or from this set of houseguests. Her indecision does help her keep her promise to build one of her tenant farmers a modern pigsty with practical drainage, despite the expense involved. That’s about it for positive occurrences.

Hunter’s characters face modernization, in pigsties or politics, reluctantly, semi-aware that their whole mode of existence is vanishing. Like Hunter’s mode of playwriting, it will soon be supplanted by other approaches, though shards of it will remain embedded in the world to come.

Charles Morgan’s set for Austin Pendleton’s revival at the Mint catches that approaching evanescence by placing the action within a series of gilt picture frames: one around the proscenium arch, one freestanding halfway upstage, and one, on the back wall, displaying the setting for each act in the style of a British landscape painting. This play’s world is over; it memorializes its characters’ way of life like a canvas by Constable or Gainsborough.

One excellent reason for seeing A Day by the Sea, in fact, is that it embodies so perfectly the gelid kind of theater that John Osborne and his Royal Court colleagues were so “angry” about when their movement began in the mid-1950s. Osborne’s Look Back in Anger, which started the British theater’s huge shakeup, hit London in 1956, just a year after A Day by the Sea‘s quick fold in New York. (Ironically, Pendleton’s next directorial task is the Pearl Theatre’s revival of Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey, a Royal Court play literally written as a riposte to Hunter’s mode of theater: Delaney penned it while working as an usher at the Manchester theater where Terence Rattigan’s terminally old-fashioned Variation on a Theme was having its pre–West End tryout.)

Chekhov, the classic maker of plays in which “nothing happens,” is often cited as Hunter’s model, depicting, like Hunter, the ineffectuality and waywardness of a waning aristocratic society. The debt is visible, often nakedly so. But Chekhov, apart from displaying a much wider range of characters, also tends to layer his portraits much more densely. He does that, in part, through a technique that Hunter doesn’t mimic: writing in short blips of crisscrossed conversation that toss hints into the drama’s
atmosphere with minimal explication. We have to piece Chekhov’s facts together for ourselves; Hunter’s people, in contrast,
explain themselves all too fully. Perhaps his work, like his hero’s, is too painstakingly spelled out to be wholly satisfactory.

Yet there’s a virtue to this defect: Hunter’s flair for a kind of rhetorical expansiveness. Pursuing their preoccupations emphatically, his characters sometimes rise to quite vivid oratorical passages,
often countered by others, as in Laura’s persistent mocking of Julian’s diplomatic pursuits. These passages evoke a most un-Chekhovian mode of playwriting: the verbally high-flying French dramas, popular in the postwar era, of writers like Jean-Paul Sartre and Jean Giraudoux, who took philosophy and political theory as natural adjuncts of any dramatic event. The two methods — the Franco-rhetorical and the Chekhovian-psychological — don’t sit well together: The grand speeches, peddling Julian’s hopes for world peace or the doctor’s nihilism, make the characters seem like empty allegorical figures, while the touches of quirky individuality turn the rhetoric hollow.

This disunity, hidden under the smooth, soothingly upper-class tone of Hunter’s dialogue, gives his plays their peculiarly cloggy quality, heightening the work’s oddity while diluting its intensity. Pendleton’s production does its best to find vitality inside the script’s eerie, stop-and-start moods. McKie, Tanner, and Morfogen — the latter two old hands at this style of bittersweet country-house comedy — come off most effectively. But one wonders: Every writer dreams to some extent of being cherished by posterity. What future generation could Hunter have imagined being fascinated by his plays? Ironically, a footnote to his original London production became more resonant than his literary reputation: It was shortly before A Day by the Sea left for its out-of-town tryout in Liverpool that its
director and star, John Gielgud, was arrested for “importuning” in a public lavatory. Homosexuality was still illegal then — and banned by the Lord Chamberlain from all mention on the British stage. Gielgud, terrified, thought he would be booed off the stage
on opening night in Liverpool; instead he received thunderous applause, a martyred hero’s welcome. Times had changed; in
due course England’s law, and its theater, changed with them. Hunter’s playwriting, poised on the cusp of change, did not.

A Day by the Sea

Directed by Austin Pendleton

The Beckett Theatre at Theatre Row

410 West 42nd Street

212-239-6200, telecharge.com

Through September 24