By Samuel L. Leiter
In 1934, Lillian Hellman’s controversial hit play The Children’s Hour made her the toast of the town. Two years later, she was just toast following the seven-performance run of her second play, Days to Come.
The critically burned playwright took responsibility for the flop but also blamed production issues: the lighting, a costume, the props, the acting, the direction. Thankfully, technical problems aren’t notable in the play’s physically attractive new revival by Off Broadway’s Mint Theater Company. But the acting and directing would surely make Hellman’s enemies list.
Days to Come, which focuses on a labor-capital conflict in a fictional Ohio town, has been called the actively leftwing Hellman’s most political drama, although the politics are relatively muffled in its multipronged dramaturgy. The play mingles multiple subjects in a somber and garrulous plot that, because of a lack of compression and synthesis, has more themes that it can comfortably contain.
Sadly, director J.R. Sullivan’s production does little to make one disagree with one of its first critics, John Anderson, who wrote that the play is “muddled and incoherent, dreary, laborious, and overwrought.”
As per the Mint’s standard practice, much attention has been given to the period costumes (by Andrea Varga), lighting (by Christian DeAngelis), sound score (by Jane Shaw), and setting (by Harry Feiner), a well-appointed living room, backed by a glass wall leading to a garden. Given the large cast, though, the upstage area between the sofa and garden wall is as constricted as the writing.
Most of the action (here squeezed, as per Hellman’s revised 1971 script, from three acts into two) is set in the substantial home of Andrew Rodman (Larry Bull), the debt-ridden owner of the family brush factory, whose recent struggles have meant cutting his workers’ wages. He lives there with his beautiful but emotionally distant wife, Julie (Janie Brookshire), and his sister, Cora (Mary Bacon), a high-strung, nagging spinster, who despises her sexually freer sister-in-law.
Led by idealistic, outside union organizer Leo Whalen (Roderick Hill), Andrew’s employees go on strike. Andrew listens to the advice of devious attorney Henry Ellicott (Ted Deacy)—who’s been carrying on with Julie while also gaining more company control—and hires shady Sam Wilkie (Dan Daily) to bring in thuggish strikebreakers.
One of these goons, Joe Easter (Evan Zes), kills the other, Mossie Dowel (Geoffrey Allen Murphy), whose body is dumped where it will cast suspicion on Whalen. Julie, who supports the strikers and loves Leo, witnesses this while visiting Leo’s office for strictly dishonorable reasons.
A gunfight erupts between the strikers and strikebreakers, the young daughter of worker Thomas Firth (Chris Henry Coffey) is shot, the strike fizzles, and the troublemakers are sent packing. With Leo framed by Wilkie, Julie has a big decision to make, while Rodman must reckon with the fallout of his well-meaning but tragically flawed decision.
The 30-year-old Hellman did considerable research on labor issues before writing the play, whose biblically-derived title implies that the “days to come” will bring unhappiness to an overly materialistic society. However, for all its Depression-era relevance (recent labor-slanted plays included the fiery Waiting for Lefty), it became mired in a melodramatic mélange of adultery, family strife, labor problems, murder, hoodlum rivalry, and legal chicanery. Much of it hints at themes the playwright would more successfully command in later plays.
Saving Days to Come from being too polemically leftist (to the dismay of its first Marxist critics) is its sympathetic depiction of the complacent Rodman. Hellman makes him a patient cuckold and generally benevolent businessman who, in hiring strikebreakers, sets in motion a situation with corruptive consequences he’s incapable of preventing.
The play’s only prior New York revival, in 1978, was considered far worthier than its prior reputation would have led one to believe. That’s often what happens with Mint revivals; unfortunately, their stodgy, lethargic version of Days to Come, with its skin-deep performances, falls far short. Spottily cast, the production is splattered with awkward blocking and dull, conventional acting, not a single performance digging deeply enough to strike a more than a one-dimensional note.
Hellman’s characters, for all their 1930s fustian, need to be acted with passion and conviction. Their toothless current avatars, however, are but walking shadows, poor players, strutting and fretting their two-plus hours upon the stage. When, in days to come, they’re heard once more, I hope it’s in something more complimentary to their abilities than Days to Come.
Days to Come
Clurman Theatre/Theatre Row
410 W. 42nd Street, NYC
Through October 6
Samuel L. Leiter is Distinguished Professor Emeritus (Theater) of Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. Sam, a Drama Desk voter, has written and/or edited 27 books on Japanese theater, New York theatre, Shakespeare, and the great stage directors. For more of his reviews, visit Theatre’s Leiter Side, Theater Pizzazz, Theater Life.