A formidable individual and a trenchant writer, Lillian Hellman (1905–84) is best remembered today for her sulfurous drama about a greedy Southern family, The Little Foxes; her longtime relationship with noir novelist Dashiell Hammett (reputedly, Hellman is the inspiration for Nora Charles in The Thin Man); her refusal to name names before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, during which she declared, “I cannot and will not cut my conscience to fit this year’s fashions”; and for her yummy recipe for pot roast.
Hellman will never be remembered for her Days to Come, a seven-performance Broadway flop in 1936. “The whole production was botched, including my botching,” recalled Hellman nearly thirty years later. “It was an absolute horror of a failure.” The opening night was such a debacle that the playwright threw up in the back of the theater. “Laborious and overwrought,” one critic typically called the piece. For some inexplicable reason, Days to Come has been dug up by the Mint Theater Company, which usually does nicely by its mission to excavate neglected works. Although the company has an admirable record of rediscovering gems, this stiff deserves to remain buried. Nor is the production up to the Mint’s typical standard.
Composed amid the troubles of the Depression, Hellman’s story regards a strike at a factory in a small Ohio town. The third-generation owner, Andrew Rodman (Larry Bull), is a nice, paternalistic gentleman coerced by family and business pressures into hiring strikebreakers. They prove to be a bunch of thugs, led by Sam Wilkie (Dan Daily), and, in spite of the efforts of Leo Whalen (Roderick Hill), a sharp labor organizer, murderous violence erupts. Significant others include Andrew’s neurotic sister Cora (Mary Bacon), his best friend and lawyer Henry (Ted Deasy), and his outspoken housekeeper, Hannah (Kim Martin-Cotten). Another pivotal figure is Andrew’s wife, Julie (Janie Brookshire), involved in a desultory affair with Henry even as she becomes attracted to Leo. In the next-day aftermath of the mayhem, Andrew learns of these betrayals and realizes that he has now become a pariah in his beloved hometown.
Perhaps this story seems viable in summary. Not so as a show. Straitjacketed into five scenes by the “well-made play” style that Hellman favored — all but one of them transpiring in an elegant drawing room — the drama’s components of outside agitations and indoor intrigues do not hold together. In her efforts to explore and meld both social issues and personal messes, Hellman satisfies neither the larger nor the intimate sides of the story. The writing is curiously lacking in spots. Andrew is depicted as an impossibly innocent soul, while the role of Julie — a smart woman who does not know her desires — is so vaguely defined that she appears less conflicted than simply clueless.
Directed somewhat stiffly by J.R. Sullivan, the Mint’s production is distinguished by a setting designed by Harry Feiner that certainly is handsome — although its sleek Thirties appearance does not bespeak the Rodman family, whose old-fashioned values likely would house them in more traditional surroundings. The acting is also uneven. Constrained by the underwritten quality of their characters as Andrew and Julie, Bull and especially Brookshire at times look like sleepwalkers. Their wan portrayals contrast against vivid performances delivered by Bacon as the querulous, selfish sister, and by Daily as the urbane strikebreaker, whose affable character suggests the amoral Little Foxes siblings destined to materialize in Hellman’s better days to come as a playwright.
Days to Come
Beckett Theatre, Theater Row
410 West 42nd Street
Through October 6