Although John Arnone is giving him a run for his money this season (on the Golden Theatre stage, in The Goat), John Lee Beatty is still the man to see when you need to build a house on stage. Or, as is the case in Paul Osborn’s Morning’s at Seven, two houses: The play calls for the three-story backs of two homes on a residential street in a quiet Midwestern town. In confident response, the wily Beatty has put up a pair of enticing structures designed with plenty of architectural detail. There are screen doors, and mullioned and eyebrow and bay windows, and lathed posts, and carved friezes, and lighting fixtures and trellises covered with late-summer roses. Each of the houses has a porch with two doors, and all the doors are much used.
Indeed, the constant comings and goings of the characters serve as a metaphor for the way these folksy folks psychologically reveal and conceal themselves to and from one another. Four of the bustling personages are sisters, of whom one, Cora (Estelle Parsons), quotes her father as forever saying: “Esty’s smartest, Arry’s wildest, Ida’s slowest, Cora’s mildest.” This is close to the truth, although the point of Morning’s at Seven is to demonstrate that Cora, Esther (Piper Laurie),
Aaronetta (Elizabeth Franz), and Ida (Frances Sternhagen) are not so easily pigeonholed. Neither is Thor (William Biff McGuire), who’s married to Cora but apparently has had some romantic liaison with Arry; or Carl (Christopher Lloyd), who’s married to Ida and so disturbed about his failures that he’s given to periodic spells; or David (Buck Henry), who’s married to Esther and has moved her a few blocks away so that she will leave her sisters alone. Ida and Carl’s son, Homer (Stephen Tobolowsky), and Myrtle (Julie Hagerty), to whom he’s engaged but is reluctant to marry, also aren’t quite as simple as they seem.
As he runs these crotchety but likeable Midwesterners through an Aristotelian 24 hours or so, Osborn makes the point that there are numerous unbridgeable distances and unexpected secrets even in a family that, at first blush, seems unusually intimate. Affable and affectionate on the surface, the nine figures live lives that at times are of quiet desperation but can also be door-slammingly noisy–never more so, it would appear, than during the time when Osborn raises the curtain on them. This is the pressure-cooker interim when momma’s boy Homer has brought the flighty and uncertain Myrtle home to meet the family, Cora has decided she wants to move herself and Thor into the house on the hill that Carl has built for Homer and Myrtle, David has threatened to assign Esty to the second floor of their house and himself to the first if she insists on visiting her siblings, Carl is having one of his most acute spells, and Arry decides that she may have worn out her welcome as Cora and Thor’s permanent house guest.
Alternately confiding in and evading each other for what was once three acts but is now two, the nonet have encounters on the porch, by the tree stump, and in the pretty alley separating the house. Chekhov set the pattern for these kinds of constantly shifting groupings in which painful confidences are exchanged, and Osborn has followed suit, though with less interest in having his characters face unpleasant realities. The foibles of early old age may not be as cute as he thinks. One of the besetting problems when young men write about older men and woman is the inclination to patronize them; Osborn was in his late thirties when he composed Morning’s at Seven, and he sometimes fell into the trap.
More problematic in this comedy-drama is the playwright’s insistence that, though trouble bubbles beneath the surface of any family’s relationships, it can be efficiently dispatched. In quick time he exposes the depth of Homer’s dependence on his mother, the rift between David and Esther, the ache of Carl’s misgivings about himself, the wound that Arry and Thor inflicted on Cora with their long-ago fling. Having done so, he takes comparably quick time to fix them up so that audiences can return, reassured, to homes which may or may not boast the Boltons’ and the Swansons’ filigreed porches. Not so fast. Osborn’s goal may be to have us believe, as Robert Browning wrote in “Pippa Passes,” that “morning’s at seven…God’s in his heaven, all’s right with the world!” But it’s more likely that morning’s at sixes and sevens, and problems like these are not easily resolved. Still, though Osborn’s vision may be as rose-colored as the blooms on John Lee Beatty’s trellises, the one thing he has done extremely well is to supply nine actors with the chance to form a nifty ensemble; and the players whom the canny director Dan Sullivan has assembled here (with the help of the estimable casting director Daniel Swee) jump at the chance to do just that. Part of the fun of watching this cozily slick production, with its evocative, around-the-clock lighting by Brian MacDevitt, is seeing how beautifully the performers interact and then trying to choose a favorite–an impossible task.
Estelle Parsons, malleable and agreeable when first hurrying out of and back into her house, eventually displays some lovely gumption. Piper Laurie embeds her determination in a biding-my-time demeanor; Elizabeth Franz has Arry’s hard edges honed properly; Frances Sternhagen’s worry-wart Ida is also exactly right. Most importantly, when the four actresses stand together, they are as convincing a quartet of siblings as could be wished. That’s thanks in part to Jane Greenwood’s costumes, which run to house dresses and appliquéd aprons with the right five-and-dime look. Greenwood’s acumen extends to noticing how the sisters have influenced each other’s unassuming wardrobes.
The men of Morning’s at Seven are every bit as good as the women. William Biff McGuire’s Thor is thoughtful and solid, bearing the look of a man who has fought with a secret and finally learned to live with it. Christopher Lloyd as Carl has a different look: that of a fellow who has fought with demons and hasn’t been able to conquer them. When he leans his head against a tree or runs haphazardly off into the neighboring gardens, he’s also very funny. Stephen Tobolowsky makes the accurately named Homer as close to believable as can be expected; he’s a big lug of a guy, lovable in his hang-ups. Buck Henry, who makes a late entrance as Carl, is always a pleasant surprise: For an accomplished writer, he’s also such a fine and reliable actor.
This leaves Julie Hagerty’s properly nervous and uncertain Myrtle. As far as this Morning’s at Seven is concerned, all is definitely right with the world.