Friday, June 7, 2013

25. Review of A PICTURE OF AUTUMN (June 6, 2013)


If anyone wants a perfect example of how direction, casting, and design can rescue a little-known play from oblivion they need only visit 59E59 to see the exceptional production of CORNELIUS, J.B. Priestley’s failed 1935 play. On the other hand, a forgotten play can sometimes be good enough to capture one’s attention even when given an only passable interpretation, as can be demonstrated by a trip to the Mint Theatre on W. 43rd Street; there, another midcentury British play, N.C. Hunter’s A PICTURE OF AUTUMN, which previously received only a single Sunday night tryout performance at the Duke’s Theatre in London in 1951, is on display. Even with very strong reviews by the London critics, no commercial producer picked it up, and it languished for 62 years until finding its legs in this production. Hunter, although now rarely revived, went on to become a quite popular London dramatist, known to some as the “English Chekhov,” and, despite this version’s shortcomings, it is to the Mint’s credit that it has restored this lost play to the stage.

Outside 311 W. 43rd Street, where the Mint Theatre is located (on the third floor). The sign you see to the left is the only signage for the theatre.

            A PICTURE OF AUTUMN is reminiscent of such Masterpiece Theatre series as DOWNTON ABBEY, being set in the crumbling, overgrown, 60-acre Winton Manor, Wiltshire, an 18-bedroom pile built in 1762 , where the aging residents, Lady Margaret Denham (Jill Tanner); her husband, Sir Charles Denham (Jonathan Hogan); and Charles’s brother, Harry (George Morfogen) are living out their days miles from the nearest village, with no automobile or phone and only a single, eccentric servant, the 73-year-old Nurse (Barbara Eda-Young). Lady Margaret is finding the maintenance of the huge house, which is falling apart, increasingly tiring and expensive, while her dullish spouse spends his days napping in an easy chair by the fire, and his brother occupies himself by shooting pigeons and recording the daily weather in a ledger. Into this den of decrepitude come, for a holiday, the Denham offspring, the stiffly businesslike Robert (Paul Niebanck) and his wife Elizabeth (Katie Firth), Robert’s footloose and usually broke brother, Frank (Christian Coulson); and Felicity (Helen Cespedes), Robert and Elizabeth’s pretty teenage daughter, who looks strikingly like Harry’s late wife, dead these 60 years.

            Robert is seriously determined to have his parents sell the manor, and even has a technical college ready to acquire it. This sets up the central conflict when he tries to convince his parents and uncle of the wisdom of selling the property and moving to smaller lodgings elsewhere. The arguments shift back and forth, and finally, when Harry has a surprising change of heart, the Denhams decide to leave. At the end of the second act, on the day when all are packed and ready to depart, Harry makes a grand gesture related to obliterating the past, and the consequences result in act three, with things more or less returned to the status quo.

            Hunter has captured the sense of a class in decline, their apparent uselessness set off in sharp contrast to a rising postwar business ethic. Even more sharply limned is his picture of lives in decline, as age takes its inevitable hold, creeping into people’s hearts the way the ivy threatens to do to Winton Manor. And the eternal problem of children learning how to tactfully look out for aging parents is equally well depicted. Robert, the son who wants to have his parents sell the house, is reminiscent of Lopakhin in Chekhov’s THE CHERRY ORCHARD, yet he realizes with poignancy toward the end that his approach to life has lost him the affection that his shiftless brother, the Gaev-like Frank, has gained by his carefree irresponsibility. The play’s central situation is a bit passé, but the various character relationships and casually realistic dialogue are very well done, and there are some excellent comic nuggets here and there. It’s rather odd that the play was recognized for its quality writing and could not find someone willing to take a chance on it, but it’s clear from even this so-so production that the play deserved an afterlife. The coming storm in British playwriting of the 1950s represented by the “angry young men” movement initiated by John Osborne was still a few years away, and first-class British actors of the Gielgud-Evans type could have done wonders for these roles.  

            All three acts (remember three-act plays?) transpire in the grand living room, suggested by designer Charles Morgan in the Mint’s tiny theatre by a white fireplace at stage right, a sweeping staircase at left center (I had no idea there was access here to an upper floor), and various armchairs, tables, and the like set against black walls on which formal paintings are hung. Overhead, a decorative white ceiling is suggested, although it serves only to flatten the sense of grandeur by being so low. Apart from the unexpected staircase, the effect is typical of make-do, low-budget Off-Broadway stagecraft. This extends to the costumes, which, while suggestive of the period, lack that special feeling of authenticity in tailoring and design so remarkably evident in CORNELIUS. (A similar comparison can be made between the relative degrees of scenic imagination offered by the two productions.)

            There is nothing particularly noteworthy in Gus Kaikkonen’s direction, and some minor things that I wish could have been avoided. It would have been helpful, for example, if, when Harry enters with a pigeon he has shot, a prop that was not so clearly a stiff, stuffed bird could have been found. And why must people speak loudly around others who are dozing, as if nothing they are saying could possibly be overheard?

            What most sets this production off from CORNELIUS, though, is the general lack of inspiration in the acting. Jill Tanner as Lady Denham is authentically British and she does a suitable, if not especially memorable, job in capturing her aristocratic character’s quiet respectability, but only veteran American actor George Morfogen, as the octogenarian Harry, brings with him real dramatic energy with his charm, intelligence, sensitivity, and vitality. Barbara Eda-Young, whom I remember as a beautiful young actress, here divests herself of all glamour to play the crone-like comic maidservant, who walks about singing religious hymns, but her characterization is superficial and her working-class accent unconvincing. Paul Niebanck is competent as the aggressively serious Robert, and Katie Firth is mildly effective as his forbearing wife, who married him when she was really in love with Frank, but the rest of the cast, with their on and off accents, is merely ordinary. I hate to have to say it again but CORNELIUS has set a benchmark and A PICTURE OF AUTUMN, for all its dramaturgic quality, simply doesn’t get near enough as a production to challenge it.