Are all plays that are lost and recovered theatrical treasures? At first, A Day by the Sea, the Mint Theater’s production of a neglected 1953 play by British dramatist N.C. Hunter, suggests the answer is no. However, under Austin Pendleton’s steady and gentle direction, we gradually see how effectively Hunter scratches the surface of social interactions to reveal what lies beneath: sadness, anger, and disappointments, as well as hopes and dreams. As the play opens, Julian Anson (Julian Elfer), a civil servant living in Paris, has come for a visit to see his mother at the family’s seaside estate. He doesn’t really want to stay. He barely sits down, and when offered a lawn chair, appears extremely uncomfortable in Elfer’s fine characterization. He captures Julian’s physical and social awkwardness. His stooped posture and pinched face communicate frustration, and his body seems to lean toward the exit, like he’s yearning to make a quick escape.
Julian’s mother, Elinor Anson (Jill Tanner), has been keeping up the estate, but she is particularly frustrated by Julian’s lack of interest in the villa, and also by her aging uncle, David Anson (George Morfogen), who seems about to expire. Morfogen brings the right combination of lethargy and energy to the role, showing both a doddering elder and someone who’s not quite ready to give up on life. Elinor frets over the household expenses, part of which go to alcohol consumed by David’s live-in caretaker, Doctor Farley (Philip Goodwin), who often launches into dark, despairing tangents. Julian’s response is “the drinking isn’t dangerous, just boring.” Additionally, there is the estate’s accountant, William Gregson (Curzon Dobell), who also seems to be in limbo.
A group of visitors is also in the mix. Frances Farrar (Katie Firth), who is staying at the villa with her children while she disentangles herself from a marriage, has been away for 20 years. She was raised by Elinor, along with Julian, after she was orphaned. Though hardly scandalous today, in the period of the play divorce is talked about with a hushed air. Frances is what might be called a “hot mess.”
Another “hot mess” is the nanny, Miss Mathiesen (Polly McKie) who, at 35, has never been married, but has her eye on the doctor. The actual day of Hunter’s title occurs in the second act (of three), and it brings forth the tensions that lead to Julian’s recognition of his stiflingly rigid life. Elinor insists he join the family for the outing, which forces him to meet his boss, Humphrey Caldwell (Sean Gormley), at the beach, where Caldwell delivers unpleasant news. At first Julian’s reaction is angry and impulsive: he uncharacteristically climbs a cliff to retrieve a lost kite for one of France’s two children. Climbing the cliff, retrieving the kite, and tearing his trousers—all seem to loosen him up, and he becomes more candid and open.
A Day by the Sea initially seems like a play of manners. Hunter and his fellow playwrights (Noel Coward among them) were replaced in the 1950s by “the angry young men,” a group of writers who focused on the working class and their struggles living in postwar Britain, still reeling from the devastation of World War II. Plays like John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger and Harold Pinter’s The Birthday Party presented human nature in a cynical way and had characters who were cruel and self-serving as they scrambled to survive.
Although Hunter’s play is not raw like those of Pinter and Osborne, it’s not Disney either—not everyone lives happily ever after. Instead, it shows how much we really just march through life. Expert lighting by Xavier Pierce and the sets by Charles Morgan suggest the ease and comfort of an English seaside villa, but they don’t undermine the fact that personal revolutions are often frustrating, fraught with despair, and don't always lead to the expected outcome. In the end Julian tries to make sense of it all but finds no simple answers. He looks out at the vista and talks about possibly transforming the landscape to get a better view of the sea. His mother, who has done nothing but goad and chastise him for not being more successful as a civil servant, is clearly happy that he might stick around a little longer. And why not? What more perfect setting to contemplate life?
The Mint Theater production of A Day by the Sea runs through Oct. 23 at the Beckett Theater (410 West 42nd St. between Ninth and Dyer avenues). Evening performances are at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday; matinees are at 2:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, with a special matinee on Wednesday, Sept. 21. Tickets are $57 and may be purchased online at Telecharge.com, by phone at 212-239-6200 or in person at the Theatre Row box office. For more information, visit minttheater.org.