Lillian Hellman left the theater a couple of decades before she left this world. In her remaining years, she published memoirs depicting herself as a conscience-driven adversary of misogynists, Nazis, and the House Un-American Activities Committee. When public intellectuals such as Mary McCarthy, Norman Podhoretz, and Diana Trilling took issue with what she wrote, Hellman let rip with insults and invective. By the time she died in 1984, Hellman’s name was associated more with public feuds than with the literate Broadway plays that had made her famous.
Biographers have had a field day documenting what’s misleading in Hellman’s three volumes of autobiography (including the celebrated chapter of Pentimento that inspired Jane Fonda’s portrayal of a heroic Lillian in the movie Julia). With her accomplishments as a dramatist overshadowed by that querulous last phase, many critics have written off Hellman as a self-serving melodramatist who learned all the wrong lessons from Ibsen’s well-made plays.
The estimable Mint Theater is offering the first New York revival of Hellman’s Days to Come in 40 years. This 1936 drama, the playwright’s second, weathered only seven performances on Broadway. It’s a potboiler and not a particularly well-made one at that. The Mint has been rightly honored for exhuming lost theatrical treasures; Days to Come is merely an interesting antique.
The play chronicles a labor dispute at a family-owned manufacturing plant in a small Ohio city. Andrew Rodman (Larry Bull) and his sister, Cora (Mary Bacon), have inherited the company, which produces high-quality brushes, from their more business-minded father. Andrew is soft-hearted and well-meaning. Cora, who doesn’t soil her hands with practical matters, is a precursor of Regina, the self-centered protagonist of Hellman’s next, far better play, The Little Foxes.
When the Rodman company reduces wages in response to economic hardship, the workers, led by Andrew’s lifelong friend Tom Firth (Chris Henry Coffey), go on strike. In short order, union organizer Leo Whalen (Roderick Hill) arrives in town.
The Rodmans have a more worldly—and ruthless—business partner, Henry Ellicott (Ted Deasy). At his behest, the company retains the services of Sam Wilkie (Dan Daily), a strikebreaker. Wilkie, with his entourage of scabs and thugs, brings tumult and, ultimately, violence to the plant and the larger community.
J. R. Sullivan, former artistic director of the defunct Pearl Theatre, has directed a superb ensemble of actors who do all they can for Hellman’s play. But the uneven quality of the script gives some cast members an appreciable advantage over others.
Pearl Theatre veteran Daily, for instance, makes a tasty meal of Wilkie’s high-caloric villainy. Looking for blackmail opportunities, this Machiavellian strikebreaker figures out that Andrew’s unhappy wife, Julie (Janie Brookshire), is having an affair with Henry and also has a yen for Whalen.
“You’re a noble lady,” says Wilkie to Julie (the meter of his speech echoing Depression-era gangster movies), “and I’m frightened of noble ladies. They usually land the men they know in cemeteries.” It’s the kind of juicy melodramatic confrontation—not entirely credible, perhaps, but intriguingly obdurate—at which Hellman excels.
By contrast, Wilkie’s henchmen, Mossie (Geoffrey Allen Murphy) and Joe (Evan Zes), are cardboard figures Hellman seems to have clipped out of a 1930s movie-fan magazine. Their scenes are banal (by no fault of the actors), except when violence erupts.
Harry Feiner’s Bauhaus-inspired set and Christian DeAngelis’s complementary lighting, Joshua Yocum’s props, and Andrea Varga’s costumes combine to create a handsome tribute to 1930s naturalism. Jane Shaw’s fine sound design includes thoroughly convincing effects, such as a furious off-stage storm and the uneven reception of live big-band broadcasts issuing from a console radio of the era. A brutal fight, choreographed by Rod Kinter, is as believable as any on-stage violence in recent memory.
Daniel Sullivan’s fine 2017 revival of The Little Foxes (with Cynthia Nixon and Laura Linney alternating in the principal female roles) has made it harder than it used to be to write off Hellman’s literary accomplishments. With critics no longer distracted by the real-life melodrama of Hellman’s old age, Daniel Sullivan’s production reasserted the playwright’s prominent place in 20th-century theater. Days to Come, with too many subplots and insufficient narrative focus, is no Little Foxes. But the Mint revival demonstrates that, even in this minor work, Hellman exercised a gift for compelling dialogue and a prophetic vision of how uncivilized Western civilization can be.
The Mint Theater production of Days to Come runs through Oct. 6 at the Beckett Theatre at Theatre Row (410 W. 42nd St.). Evening performances are at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday to Saturday; matinees are at 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday (also on Wednesday, Sept. 5 and Thursday, Sept. 20. For information and tickets, visit minttheater.org.