Critics are quick to label as “Chekhovian” any contemporary drama that functions as a sympathetic, highly detailed character study, mixing humor and pathos, without much suspense or movement in plotting. At this point, the term has virtually lost its meaning, especially since the bulk of new plays displays these characteristics (the most recent example being Stephen Karam’s The Humans, which has become a surprise hit on Broadway).
But if any play really does deserve the Chekhovian label, it’s A Day By the Sea, a three-act English drama from 1953 by N.C. Hunter that directly pays homage to the structural elements and character traits of Chekhov’s plays. (Three years ago, the Mint produced Hunter’s A Picture of Autumn.)
The fact that it has been long forgotten since its 1955 Broadway premiere (which lasted just 24 performances, even with Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy leading the cast) makes it ideal material for Off-Broadway’s reputable Mint Theater Company, which specializes in producing such rarities and, on occasion, spinning gold out of them. Luckily, this is such an occasion, with Austin Pendleton’s fair and balanced production making a persuasive case for the play’s merits.
Set in a scenic and calm coastal community in postwar England, a middle-aged man and woman who have not seen each other for two decades return to their childhood home and, in the process, open up about themselves and their present sadness, while permitting some hope for redemption in the near future.
Julian, a workaholic civil servant and misanthropic lifelong bachelor, receives a rude awakening that his argumentative demeanor and unpopularity have cost him any shot at a promotion. Although he chastises his mother about not caring enough about the real world, he realizes that all his hard work to date has not amounted to any real-world progress, recalling Uncle Vanya’s rage at Professor Serebryakov after years of loyal service.
Frances, who came to live with Julian’s family as a child, now returns with her own young children. Her first, much older husband died in the war, and her second, much younger husband tried to kill himself after she scorned him. Now disillusioned and depressed, she confesses to Julian that she loved him back in the day, while he was completely oblivious to her affections.
The supporting characters include a ranting and raving, hopelessly inebriated doctor (think Dr. Astrov of Uncle Vanya or Dr. Chebutykin of The Three Sisters), a self-pitying nanny (think Masha of The Seagull), Julian’s weak, elderly uncle (think Sorin in The Seagull), and Julian’s resilient mother.
Once you get past the obvious Chekhov comparisons, it is possible to accept the play on its own terms and see it as a wonderful piece in and of itself that ought to have been taken out of the drawer and given a new life long ago, even if it takes a while for the play (which runs three hours) to get past the exposition. Once the characters confront their failings, it makes for gripping theater.
The production plays nicely at the Beckett Theater on Theater Row, where the Mint has relocated after losing its longtime space on 43rd Street. To suggest the idyllic setting, large landscape paintings of a house garden and the beachside compliment a few fixtures and props.
How appropriate that Julian is being played by an actor named Julian (Julian Elfer), who imbues the character with a nonstop restlessness. Katie Firth’s Frances is a sad soul who accepts her past misdeeds and has no motivation to improve her life. As the resident doctor, Philip Goodwin erupts into his existential monologues with a burning, aimless fervency.