The cast of ‘Morning’s at Seven.’ (Photo: Maria Baranova)
By Samuel L. Leiter
Among several factors putting speed bumps in the path of the new season have been postponements caused not only by those testing positive but by actors who’ve been injured. Broadway’s Lackawanna Blues had to wait while writer-star-director Ruben Santiago recovered from a back injury. Most recently, Judith Ivey, set to co-star in the Off-Broadway revival of Paul Osborn’s 1939 domestic comedy, Morning’s at Seven, injured her leg and had to be replaced.
That replacement is Alley Mills, of TV’s “The Wonder Years,” where she co-starred opposite Dan Lauria as his wife. In Morning’s at Seven, she plays his live-in, torch-carrying sister-in-law. Ms. Mills is a trouper. When I saw the play in preview, she was still learning the role; in fact, she played the second act with script in hand, never missing a beat. I’m sure she’ll prove a worthy choice.
Morning’s at Seven, whose original production rang up only 44 performances, is the kind of play that was easy to get lost in a vibrant season like that of 1939-1940, especially when so much laughter was being sucked up by The Man Who Came to Dinner and Life with Father. By an odd coincidence, one of the latter’s two writers, Russel Crouse, fathered the estimable Lindsay Crouse, part of the current ensemble.
Osborn’s apple-pie comedy of Rockwellian family life in a Midwestern town, circa 1922, became a rare flop with a hit afterlife, including two star-studded Broadway revivals. Dan Wackerman’s enjoyable staging for the Peccadillo Theater Company at Theatre at St. Clement’s, although not perfect, won’t diminish its reputation as a minor American classic.
It certainly seems a good choice for the typical theatregoing demographic, with a dramatis personae in which seven of the nine characters are in their mid-to-late 60s; the others are whippersnappers of 40 and 39. Each has much to do over the course of an unusually eventful day set in the adjoining backyards of the Swansons, Thor (Dan Luria) and Cora (Ms. Crouse), and the Boltons, Carl (John Rubenstein) and Ida (Alma Cuervo), Cora’s sister.
There are two more sisters. One, spinster Aaroneta (“Arry”) Gibbs (Ms. Mills), having resided with the Boltons for four decades, believes a youthful romantic indiscretion is a secret only she and one other person know. The other, Esther (Patty McCormack), is married to grumpy former professor David Crampton (Tony Roberts). Considering Esther’s family to be “morons,” he forbids her from seeing them, a dictate she cautiously ignores. The younger generation is represented by the Boltons’ feckless son, Homer (Jonathan Spivey), and Myrtle Brown (Keri Safran), his fiancée of seven years (following a five-year courtship). Today will be the first time she meets her future family.
Harry Feiner’s substantial, realistic set, gently lit by James E. Lawlor, III, shows the rear portions and their yards of two more less identical houses: the Swansons’ nice and tidy, the Boltons’ showing much less (too much less, I’d say) care. It supports a lot of carrying on, mostly comic, even farcical, but occasionally touching, among these loving but sometimes feuding family members. Much has to do with a third, unseen house, built years earlier by Carl for Homer; the question of its ultimate inhabitants is a major plot driver.
In fact, one of Osborn’s main themes is what actually constitutes a home, as witness the strivings, frustrations, jealousies and affections involved when his lovable eccentrics try to determine their future living arrangements. Thus, for example, we ponder the debate between David and Esther over splitting their home into separate domiciles; laugh over the Swansons’ arrangement of three people cohabiting in less than ideal circumstances; and regret the effect of the unoccupied house on Homer and Myrtle’s engagement.
Other themes involve the aging process, the difficulties of longtime marriages, and the existential problem of people unsure of the meaning of their lives. The latter is memorably represented by Carl, who experiences depressive “spells.” When these happen—as when he regrets having become a builder rather than a dentist—he presses his head against a wall or tree and stands there in a 45-degree angle funk. Carl’s dilemma then becomes fodder for David’s philosophical ruminations.
The earliest scenes seemed a bit shaky when I attended, perhaps because of the new actress’s presence, and the actors were pushing a little too hard to capture the comic tone. They soon settled down, though, and even their exaggerations began seeming normal within the world they were creating. Barbara A. Bell’s costumes, however, especially the men’s, might have helped them evoke that world better had they looked a bit more 1922-authentic and less like generic choices from a costume warehouse.
While Mr. Spivey and Ms. Safran are satisfactory in their somewhat overstated roles, I was especially charmed by the impressive cadre of veterans: Tony Roberts (all those Woody Allen movies!), dryly understated as the professorial cynic; Patty McCormack (“The Bad Seed”), wise, warm, and witty as his wife; John Rubinstein (Pippin), amusingly sympathetic as the bewildered builder; Dan Lauria, comically perturbed as party to a long-ago tryst; Lindsay Crouse (Places in the Heart), determined to have a new house and live in it; and Alma Cuervo (Uncommon Women and Others), struggling for stability between a confused husband and mama’s boy son.
If the past is prologue, Morning’s at Seven will probably have to wait another two or more decades before its next important revival. My advice: don’t wait so long when there’s such a flavorsome one around right now.
Morning’s at Seven
Theatre at St. Clement’s
423 West 46th Street, NYC
Through January 9, 2022
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 nearly 30 books on Japanese theater, New York theatre, Shakespeare, and the great stage directors. His reviews for 2012-2013 and 2014-2015 are available in the Theatre’s Leiter Side series on Amazon.com. For more of his reviews, visit Theatre’s Leiter Side, Theater Pizzazz, and Theater Life.