Mint gives first class production to A Picture of Autumn

The Mint Theatre, under the artistic directorship of Jonathan Bank, produces worthwhile plays from the past that have been lost or forgotten.  It’s an invaluable part of the New York theatre scene, for it gives us a look into the tastes and talents of a former generation or two; it reminds us what interested American audiences during the past 150 years; it introduces us to works that found favor in England, Ireland and on the Continent, but did not manage to cross the ocean.

One such example is N.C.Hunter’s A Picture of Autumn, which opened in 1951 in London as the first in a series of plays that established its author’s reputation as “an English Chekhov.”  Mr. Hunter was 43 years old when this play was first seen in the British theatre of the 1950s. His youth was spent in the Dragoon Guards, but after three years in its service he defected to give himself a literary life. His early plays were farcical comedies; there were six of them and four novels, all written before the start of World War II.

During the War he served with the Royal Artillery, but in 1947 he returned to playwrighting and in the four years before Autumn arrived, he finally found the voice that was distinctly his own — a wise and gentle voice that had close acquaintance with nuance, insight and humor — and this play, set in a crumbling Wilshire manor, secured his place in theatre history, though it is only now in the Mint production that it is being fully appreciated, for originally in England it had only a single performance , a full production Sunday night “try-out” and that was the end of it.  It was followed by Waters of the Moon and A Day By The Sea, both of which enjoyed long London runs. These and other star studded productions of his plays led ultimately to the publication of his earlier unsuccessful work.

George Morfogen as Harry and Helen Cespedes as Felicity (Photo: Richard Termine)

George Morfogen as Harry and Helen Cespedes as Felicity (Photo: Richard Termine)

His concerns with the aging middle class attracted audiences accustomed to, and appreciative of writers who dealt with relevant issues of their day — Granville Barker, Bernard Shaw, Noël Coward, Terrence Rattigan, JB Priestley, Arnold Bennett and a host of others were the box office names of the first half of the 20th century in Britain, and they were joined by a consortium of similar names in America as well.

Hunter arrived late on the scene, and when John Osborne and Joe Orton came along to shake things up for the establishment,  to allow the new kids on the block to label Hunter and his peers “old fashioned,” Mr. Hunter’s star faded.

But what goes around comes around, and I was struck by how similar Hunter’s theme and language sound when compared to Richard Greenberg’s new work, The Assembled Parties, currently on Broadway and nominated for a Tony as Best Play. We have had other examples of works dealing with an aging middle class  — Jon Robin Baitz’s Other Desert Cities and David Lindsay-Abaire’s Good People are just two of the recent crop using craft and insight to probe and poke at the shifting of values as time marches on. I found A Picture of Autumn to be right up there with these fine examples  dealing with similar themes. Yet the Mint is giving it its American premiere, and how fortunate we are  that it did.

Under Gus Kaikkonen’s detailed direction, and played in Charles Morgan’s perfect period set, Mr. Hunter’s three act play takes its time to introduce Sir Charles and Lady Margaret Denham and Charles’ brother Harry, old folks living in the family manse, a building erected in the mid 1700s, now begging for help as it continues on its inevitable path to oblivion. Visiting on a morning  in October 1951 are the family — the Denham sons Robert and Frank, Robert’s wife Elizabeth, and her daughter Felicity. Very much part of the company is Nurse, the ancient housekeeper who has been at her job for forty years.

It’s Robert, the elder son, who is hoping he can convince his Uncle Harry and his parents to sell the house, and move into something more practical, now that they are older and less able to cope with the running of this creaky and vast estate. It’s The Cherry Orchard all over again, is it not? It doesn’t end quite the same way, but it’s a rousing good play written by a man who not only knows his characters, but knows how to tell a story that will leave us willing to wait for its conclusion, and to remain believers until the end, and to feel satisfied at final curtain.

A remarkable company of American actors brings it off. George Morfogen, a true gem, brings humor and size and dimension to Uncle Harry, the most interesting of the lot. Jonathan Hogan and Jill Tanner are the quintessential Sir Charles and Lady Margaret. Hogan’s way of playing humble, indecisive, submissive is delicious to watch; he’s the least assertive member of the family, yet I felt his presence at all times.

Ms. Tanner is a marvel at making clear her devotion to her husband though she is well aware of all he is not.  Paul Niebanck ‘s Robert manages to create empathy for the poor sod even though he’s at odds with just about everyone in his path. As the younger brother, the irresponsible and charming Frank, Christian Coulson is a combination of a young Errol Flynn  and the less well known but dashing Gig Young.

Helen Cespedes, as young Felicity, making her New York debut, is definitely a “find”.  She’s pert, has a dazzling smile, can more than hold her own when sharing a scene with the brilliant George Morfogen, and she is most welcome indeed.  The cast is rounded out with Barbara Eda-Young who milks most of the mirth out of Nurse, only now and then spilling some by pushing her eccentricities. But she manages her later scenes well, and might just give some thought to her early moments. Karl Swartz does good work doubling as a real estate broker and a cab drive, two very different and impressive characterizations.

I felt well nourished by this fine play and its absolutely first class production. On the third floor of an office building on West 43rd Street, in a black box of a small theatre, there is something important going on.

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A Picture of Autumn is onstage thru July 14, 2013 at The Mint Theatre, 311 West 43rd St, NYC. Details and tickets

 

Broadway performer, agent, writer, and now librettist, among his many accomplishments, Richard Seff has written the book for Shine! The Horatio Alger Musical!, which debuted at the 2010 New York Musical Theatre Festival. He is also author of Supporting Player: My Life Upon the Wicked Stagecelebrating his lifetime on stage and behind the scenes, available through online booksellers, including Amazon.com.

Richard Seff chats with Joel Markowitz:

 

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