About N. C. Hunter, who wrote, among other plays, A Day by the Sea in 1953, the distinguished but now all but forgotten English critic W. A. Darlington commented that the playwright's "best work was often treated disparagingly by critics who allowed themselves to pretend he was a mere imitator of the Russian genius [Anton Chekhov]. However, I think they were demonstrably wrong. Hunter's sense of character was acute and full of original observation."
Darlington put it so well that after watching the Mint Theater Company's revival at the Beckett, I won't attempt to put it any better. I will, however, elaborate on Darlington's fair remarks. It can't be disputed that Hunter (1n 2013 the Mint revived his A Picture of Autumn) was greatly influenced--not to say traumatized--by his Russian predecessor.
A Day by the Sea practically runs down a checklist of Chekhovian aspects. The melancholy work takes place in a country house (here it's Dorset). Although the opus is now being offered in three acts, it contains four scenes that could qualify as Chekhov-like four acts. The characters consider themselves living in an unsettled transition period while imagining a happier future they'll never see. A plain woman makes an unrequited play for a dissatisfied physician. At a point in the fourth scene someone reports that "They're all gone." In the third act an old man is one of those left behind.
This is Chekhov territory, all right. Yet, as Darlington states, Hunter brings his own insights into the play's 10 inhabitants as they spend less than 24 hours in a garden and on a nearby beach. The focal figure is Julian Anson (Julian Elfer), a 40-year-old second-level diplomat who's home, he thinks, for a few days before returning to his Paris assignment and, while taking rare time off, initially proves himself something of a stick-in-the-mud.
More interested in his newspaper than in those around him, he's most dismissive of Frances Farrar (Katie Firth), his now grown childhood playmate, an orphan his mother, Laura Anson (Jill Tanner), took in. It's slowly revealed that Frances, a war widow returned to the house for a short visit with children from her first marriage--Elinor (Kylie McVey) and Toby (Athan Sporek)--cared more for Julian than he for her.
One of the outstanding Day by the Sea assets is the skill with which Hunter handles Julian. All but unlikable at the start, Julian becomes more sympathetic when he learns from colleague Humphrey Caldwell (Sean Gormley) that his Paris posting will not be extended. It seems his reputation as stodgy has harmed him. Hunter makes the truth of that assessment clear as well as showing Julian's accepting that truth--and his subsequent decision to see how he might benefit from it.
Will it mean his allying himself with Frances, who lets him know in concrete terms how she felt when they romped on the beach together? Nothing will be revealed here--only that Hunter understands how affairs of the heart, certainly in anything echoing Chekhov, can shift. Some of the play's best writing occurs in the later Julian-Frances encounters, in their frank confrontations.
As all Hunter's characters gather In larger groups or in twos or threes, their foibles, worries and animosities are displayed with subtlety--all that is, but those of the children, who remain carefree. Old man David Anson (George Morfogen) is needy and cranky. Doctor Farley (Philip Goodwin) sees to David with affection but also gives in to drunken tirades as a result of the gin he guzzles as the Anson liquor bill mounts.
Both Frances and Katie speak about feeling out of place. Laura Anson is ever the gracious host but also expresses dissatisfaction with her son's behavior, with David Anson's disposition and with the doctor's drinking habits. The accountant William Gregson (Curzon Dobell), on hand to go over the books with Julian, is efficient at his duty but also joins in a bender with Doctor Farley.
At their roles, the actors--this includes young McVie and Sporek--bring infinite subtleties to their assignments. Elfer, who's asked to undergo the play's most significant changes, does so by way of sly underplaying. He spends much of his on-stage time sitting down, with his severest challenge looking at first whether he should cross his left leg over his right or his right leg over his left. But where he's really successful is in the manner by which he reveals Julian's thoughts becoming increasingly less confident.
Firth's sense of intelligent dolefulness, Tanner's authority, Godwin's quick shifts between anger and regret, McKie's enduring sadness are only part of the ensemble's overall effectiveness as they come and go on Charles Morgan's unusually elegant set and in Martha Hally's flawless period costumes.
Surely, much credit for the success of this A Day by the Sea goes to Austin Pendleton. It's likely, if not certain, he was chosen to helm the autumnal piece--even if it's summer in the script--because of his achievements as not only a Chekhov director but as a Chekhov actor. (He's played Uncle Vanya, of course, and has undoubtedly noticed the similarity between Julian and Chekhov's famous 47-year-old malcontent.)
Pendleton, who may be the busiest person in New York City's theater life, is attuned to Hunter's Chekhovian blend of disillusionment, humor and eventual acceptance and in this welcome Day by the Sea brings it all to vibrant, plangent life.