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A Day by the Sea

The Mint Theater Company revives a rarely seen play from 1953.

Katie Firth, Jill Tanner, Kylie McVey, Polly McKie, Athan Sporek, Philip Goodwin, Julian Elfer, Curzon Dobell, and George Morfogen star in the Mint Theater Company production of A Day by the Sea.
(© Richard Termine)

The fears of middle-age loneliness come to light in N.C. Hunter's drama A Day by the Sea, a work from 1953 only now receiving a revival by the Mint Theater Company under the direction of Austin Pendleton. While the feelings presented in this play are universal, they're strained by the three-act structure, with too little action to justify its length.

Hunter's plays were star magnets when they premiered, and A Day by the Sea, which debuted at London's Theatre Royal Haymarket, was one of them. John Gielgud directed and starred in it, and the company was a who's who of theatrical royalty: Irene Worth, Sybil Thorndike, and Ralph Richardson, among others. While the reviews were pleasant and the run lasted 386 performances, the play's 1955 New York birth, starring Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy, managed to eke out only 24 shows. As is their wont, the Mint has rescued a forgotten play from obscurity; this is the show's first-ever revival in the Big Apple.

Moving at a leisurely pace, A Day by the Sea is set in the Dorset, England, garden of Laura Anson (Jill Tanner), whose extended family has gathered for their annual weekend at the beach. The central character is Laura's son Julian (Julian Elfer), a diplomat in the Foreign Service, whose dissatisfaction with his work and life has come to color his personality. But it might not be too late for him to find happiness, a realization brought about by the presence of Frances Farrar (Katie Firth), a friend since childhood who is now the widowed mother of two youngsters. A romance has the chance to blossom as the breezes blow, but will it?

While A Day by the Sea is surprisingly relevant (loneliness never goes out of style), Pendleton's production, no matter how attractive it is (and it is), cannot overcome the tediousness of the script. The play's three-hour running time must almost entirely pass before any semblance of action occurs. The enigmatic quality of the moods on display doesn't help, either. In that sense, the piece is a cousin to the works of Chekhov, all stewing and longing with little motion.

The production is pleasing to look at, at least, with a breezily picturesque set by Charles Morgan, lovely period costumes by Martha Hally, and authentic seaside lighting by Xavier Pierce. Despite Pendleton managing to guide a few of the cast members (like George Morfogen as the elderly Uncle David) to performances of genuine ache, most of the company is too actorly to be truly believable.

The standout ends up being one of the tertiary players, Polly McKie, as Miss Mathieson, the 35-year-old bachelorette nursemaid of Frances' children. About to lose her job and desperate for a chance at happiness before spinsterhood sets in, Miss Mathieson sets out to change her fate, gingerly taking it into her own hands. McKie is extremely moving, adding a great deal of heartbreaking authenticity to the proceedings. For A Day by the Sea to strike a chord, it consistently needs to hit with a tidal wave of emotions.

Katie Firth, Athan Sporek, Kylie McVey, Jill Tanner, Philip Goodwin, Julian Elfer, and George Morfogen in N.C. Hunter's A Day by the Sea.
(© Richard Termine)