“Does something happen soon? It’s pretty dull, this.”
That’s what grumpy Uncle David says about a long-winded story halfway through the first act of “A Day by the Sea,” the latest neglected play reanimated by the Mint Theater Company.
Apparently, that’s also what American theatergoers griped when the drama premiered on Broadway in 1955, where it ran for a mere 24 performances. Not even Jessica Tandy or Hume Cronyn could save it (the production, however, had been warmly received in London a couple of years earlier).
With the advent of McDonald’s fast food joints and hip-swiveling Elvis, Americans no longer had the patience for talky, three-act Chekhovian domestic dramas. The play’s author, N.C. Hunter, was a celebrated British playwright until he was scuttled in the late 1950s by the wave of Angry Young Men, led by John Osborne. Sedate, restrained naturalism was usurped by gritty, kitchen sink realism.
So how does “A Day by the Sea” fare more than a half-century later?
Exceptionally well, as it happens. Under the guidance of veteran director/ actor/ playwright Austin Pendleton, this gentle, meticulously crafted drama is a welcome break from the calculating, overwrought productions typically seen on the boards today.
If the drama, set in a vast English coastal estate in 1953, is short on plot, it is long on richly drawn, flesh-and-blood characters, evoked by a highly capable ensemble. Naturally, in a play about the passage of time, a wide range of ages is represented.
The 40-year-old master of the house, Julian Anson (Julian Elfer, who strikes just the right mix of brashness and charm), has just returned after a long stint in Paris serving as an official in the Foreign Service.
Julian’s devoted mother, Laura (Jill Tanner), a widow who manages the house, farm, and gardens in his absence, is worried that her workaholic bachelor son is too preoccupied by pressing matters of state to literally stop and smell the roses. Once Julian is notified by his boss (Sean Gormley) that his post will not be renewed, he is confronted with the ghastly collision of his past and his future.
While on a picnic at the beach, Julian contemplates his lackluster career and empty social life and realizes it’s time to rebound from his mistakes and seize his dreams. One of his dreams involves his childhood friend Frances (Katie Firth, who springs to life in the third act), now a divorcée with a shameful past, who happens to be visiting with her two rowdy children and governess (Polly McKie) in tow.
Julian loathes the idea of becoming an anachronistic country squire. Or does he?
Also on hand are 82-year-old Uncle David (George Morfogen), his boozy caregiver, Doctor Farley (Philip Goodwin), and a pesky solicitor (Curzon Dobell).
“A Day by the Sea” offers the chance to reflect on timeless themes — the power of family bonds, coping with advancing age, seizing the day before it’s too late, and the urge to ignore harsh realities.
“Why must we have these wearisome world problems dragged into the garden, among the flowers?,” Laura says about the men debating the “age of anxiety” and the brutal politics of war.
Granted, the nearly three-hour running time (with two intermissions) is not for everyone, and there are lulls. But I found this eloquently complex drama a tranquil, refreshing respite from the harsh realities of today’s political climate, not unlike, well, a day by the sea. It’s an excursion well worth taking.
A DAY BY THE SEA | Mint Theater Company | Beckett Theatre at Theatre Row, 410 W. 42nd St. | Through Sep. 24: Tue.-Sat. at 7:30 p.m.; Sat.-Sun. at 2:30 p.m. | $57.50-$65 at minttheater.org | Two hrs., 50 mins. with two intermissions