A Day by the Sea

by Brooke Pierce

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Wednesday August 31, 2016

Three years after showcasing N.C. Hunter's lovely, funny 1951 play "A Picture of Autumn," the Mint Theater Company -- which has a mission to revive forgotten plays -- brings us another of Hunter's wonderful works, "A Day by the Sea," now playing Off-Broadway at the Beckett Theatre.

England's answer to Chekhov, N.C. Hunter wrote plays from the 1930s to the 1960s, enjoying his greatest amount of fame in the '50s, when "A Day by the Sea" was originally produced. The West End production featured such luminaries as John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson, while the Broadway production starred Jessica Tandy and Hume Cronyn. But when a new breed of grittier playwrights came to prominence in the '60s, Hunter's charming and contemplative plays about the upper class started to feel dated.

The title of "A Day by the Sea" might give an audience today the wrong idea as well, but don't be fooled. While one of the play's three acts is indeed set by the sea, the drama has more depth and feeling than such a light, vague title suggests. Most of its themes -- aging, regret, hope, geopolitics, and disappointments in both career and love -- feel just as relevant today as they did over a half century ago.

The play takes place during one day, and the following morning, at Laura Anson's home in Dorset. Elderly uncle David lives in the house, as does his caretaker, the alcoholic Dr. Farley. Frances Farrar, an orphan who grew up there, has returned 20 years later and is staying as a guest with her children and governess following a scandalous divorce. Laura's unmarried son Julian, a workaholic employed in Paris by the Foreign Service, is also there for a brief stay.

In this setting, we find motherly nagging, rushed romantic confessions, rueful meditations on loss, and plenty of bickering. In his forties at the time of the play's writing, Hunter had the stresses of middle age on his mind, which is particularly evident in the character of Julian, a man who has always taken his work so seriously, only to find himself penalized for his dogged dedication and wondering how he let the pleasures of life get away from him. His childhood playmate Frances, meanwhile, has tried many times to find happiness in love, but never successfully, and now feels empty inside.

If this sounds a bit dreary, it really isn't. Hunter affirms life's tragedies but also demonstrates that we get through them with friends, family, and little everyday wins, whether it's retrieving a child's kite in a daring rescue or hatching plans for a new backyard garden.

"A Day by the Sea" is a full three hours, which is long by modern standards, but it remains interesting throughout. Under Austin Pendleton's sure-footed direction, the play's 10-person ensemble is top-notch and includes some of the same veteran actors (Jill Tanner, George Morfogen, Katie Firth) who helped make Mint's production of "A Picture of Autumn" such a joy.

While not as humorous as "Autumn," this play is so full of understated yet beautifully expressed, human moments: the doctor's tirade about war (which starts out political before turning intensely personal), the never-married governess desperate to have someone to call her own, Frances sadly admitting that she has become a different person, elderly David expressing how getting older feels like being left behind. "A Day by the Sea" is a snapshot of life in 1950s England that is every bit as recognizable in 2016 New York City, and most likely will be for future audiences, whenever and wherever they may be.

"A Day by the Sea" runs through Oct. 30 at The Beckett Theatre at Theatre Row, 410 West 42nd St. in New York City. For information or tickets, call 212-239-6210 or visit www.minttheater.org.

Brooke Pierce is a freelance writer and playwright in New York City. Her plays have received staged readings at the American Theatre of Actors, the Ensemble Studio Theatre, and Stage One Theater. Brooke is a member of the Drama Desk and the Dramatists Guild.