Perhaps the reason Paul Osborn's "Morning's at Seven" flopped when it was first presented on Broadway in 1939 was that it seemed so ordinary. It is, after all, a relatively quiet domestic comedy about four sisters. Three of them live next door to one another, the fourth not far away. The action, set in 1922, is fairly mild - at various points, various spouses threaten to move. Even in 1939, this might have seemed a little too restrained. When it was triumphantly revived in 1980, however, this very gentility seemed an enormous virtue. The intervening 40 years had given the play an aura almost as magical as "Brigadoon's."
The new revival, directed by Daniel Sullivan, is remarkable because it makes clear that, however idyllic this world seems, it also has fault lines with seismic possibilities. For example, the one sister who is a spinster, Aaronetta, though she has been the beneficiary of her sibling Cora's generosity, has also rankled her to the point where, after 40 years, Cora suddenly wants to take action. Talk about a slow burn! Two of the husbands, after many years of domestic resignation, also suddenly have a yen for change. The most comic of the impending changes is that of the homebound son, Homer, who, in his early 40s, reluctantly thinks he might marry the woman to whom he has been "engaged" for seven years. What makes the play very much of its time is that all these crises are resolved amicably, with a sense that the compromises these characters have made with life are not going to be abrogated, just slightly renegotiated. Sullivan has assembled a splendid cast to bring this gem to life. Frances Sternhagen brings a sense of impending catastrophe to Ida, the only sister to have had a child; Stephen Tobolowsky is masterly as that emotionally crippled son. As his fiancée, Julie Hagerty subtly conveys that she shares her future mother-in-law's nerve-racked sensibility. Estelle Parsons gives Cora a marvelously placid exterior and a sublimely dizzy grin that occasionally breaks to reveal a lot of turbulence barely held in check. Similarly, Elizabeth Franz, as Aaronetta, has a rigid composure that masks a lifetime of frustration. When the mask drops, the effect is powerful. Piper Laurie still seems tentative as the sister who has "broken free." (She lives a few blocks away.) William Biff McGuire has great serenity as Cora's aloof husband. Christopher Lloyd is suitably bewildered as a man in midlife crisis. Buck Henry is perhaps too mild-mannered as the brother-in-law who holds them all in contempt. John Lee Beatty's set and Jane Greenwood's costumes give this cherished comedy an Edenic glow.
Broadway’s old-fashioned and, like Jerome Kern, it "loves those old-fashioned things." Sometimes this works out, sometimes it doesn't. With Paul Osborn's 1939 play "Morning's at Seven" - which gracefully resurfaced at the Lyceum Theatre last night - it works out. Or at least, it works out more than it doesn't work out.
This cozily intimate, gossipy American small-town story on the eve - although you would never guess - of World War II, takes a less pretentious view of that same world scanned by Thornton Wilder a year earlier in his somberly schematic "Our Town."
Even though the original production only ran on Broadway for 44 performances, the cozy popularity of "Morning's at Seven," sugared perhaps with a nostalgia for a Norman Rockwell America that never truly existed, nowadays seems unquestionable.
Indeed today perhaps the only apt word for the play is "adorable." And if you have too many objections to adorable - and I have quite a few myself - then the play is probably not for you.
Osborn's dialogue harks back to a time when situation comedy was expected to have a hint of wit and a dash of eccentric reality. It was, however, life as lived in that cinematic Andy Hardy territory, where there are no real villains, no real problems and definitely no Depression.
The title comes from the poet Robert Browning, who, in a happy excess of Victorian optimism, declares that "God's in His heaven - All's right with the world."
And with the kind of cast gathered together here, schooled into a beautiful parade of neatly interwoven ensemble vignettes by director Daniel Sullivan, all's right with the play.
The cast of nine represents as seasoned a company of super-professionals as you could find. They could probably act this audience-pleaser in their sleep, and it's to their enormous credit that they don't.
Flitting among John Lee Beatty's enchantingly credible depiction of two identical frame houses and their backyards, gleefully wearing Jane Greenwood's impeccably period costumes, the actors give as much pleasure as they evidently take.
As four sisters facing the winter of their years with autumnal friskiness, the sharply vinegary Elizabeth Franz, the warmly confident Piper Laurie, the sweetly determined Estelle Parsons and the constantly surprised Frances Sternhagen are all gorgeous.
The three husbands, the persnickety Buck Henry, the nutsy Christopher Lloyd and the troubled William Biff McGuire are as equally adept as the women at making something nearly wonderful out of characters that are nearly nothing.
Finally, perhaps the most enjoyable performances in all this expense of expertise come from a wan Julie Hagerty and a beautifully stupid Stephen Tobolowsky as the lovers slightly beyond their prime time.
Is it worth seeing? Broadway audiences undemandingly out for a mild good time could certainly do worse. The producer, the handsomely funded Lincoln Center Theater, on the other hand, should certainly do better.
Comic charm, like power and new money, seldom announces itself quietly in New York. This is a city that likes its humor fast, flashy and overstated, and it's rare that a Broadway comedy seduces by stealth. Which may be why Paul Osborn's ''Morning's at Seven,'' which has been given a wonderful new revival at the Lyceum Theater, surprises Manhattan theatergoers every time it comes around.
When Mr. Osborn's story of four elderly sisters first opened in 1939, Brooks Atkinson in The New York Times described its characters as ''too true in homely essence to fit any of the Broadway fashions.'' This seemed even more the case when Vivian Matalon's fine production became the sleeper hit of 1980.
And yet here the play is again, like a shy country cousin who wanders into an overdressed cocktail party, stealing the thunder from the self-impressed cosmopolites. No doubt about it, ''Morning's at Seven'' -- which opened last night with nine ideally cast troupers under the pitch-perfect direction of Daniel Sullivan -- still has charm to burn. It just doesn't wear its appeal on its surface. And what a relief that is.
Sure, you could call the play's dialogue witty, in a homespun way. And its characters might be described as likably eccentric, as people on contemporary sitcoms are meant to be.
Yet what makes this gently colored, sharply etched family portrait so engaging is its understanding that laughter and tears, as responses to everyday life, are as close and connected as Siamese twins. When the curtain rises on John Lee Beatty's luxuriously realized vision of a backyard in small-town America, you may anticipate a cozy, theatrical answer to the Andy Hardy movies of the same period. Don't be fooled.
''Morning's at Seven'' may look like a Norman Rockwell illustration. But its soul is out of a painting by Edward Hopper, who so vividly identified solitariness as an all-American trait. ''You can be alone in a lot of different ways,'' someone says in ''Morning's at Seven.'' The play counts the ways, but in a spirit of such benevolent acceptance that it comforts even as it breaks your heart. That Osborn's study in solitude has been realized by such a gloriously symbiotic ensemble is a happy paradox in a Broadway season that needs all the good news it can get. To single out one performer seems unfair and not just because they all wear their roles like favorite old sweaters.
It's also because each of them needs the others to come fully into being. This is as it should be, since they portray a set of characters who have lived in one another's pockets for decades, with all the ease and irritation, the security and suffocation, that such closeness creates. This doesn't stop one of them from standing forlornly behind the house where he has spent most of his life and asking, ''Where am I?''
The words are given their full philosophical due by Christopher Lloyd, looking like a German Expressionist answer to Grant Wood's ''American Gothic.'' Mr. Lloyd plays Carl Bolton, a builder who regularly has what his family tactfully calls spells, in which he broods over things like the road not taken.
Though Carl's spells are generally taken for granted, he's having one that especially alarms his wife, Ida (Frances Sternhagen), when the play begins. It's an inconvenient moment for angst, since their 40-year-old son, Homer (Stephen Tobolowsky) is bringing over Myrtle Brown (Julie Hagerty), the woman he's been dating for 12 years, for the first time.
Thus begins the series of crises, domestic and existential, that keep ''Morning's at Seven'' percolating. Carl's anxiety spreads like a low-grade plague. Right next door to the Boltons live the Swansons: Cora (Estelle Parsons), and her husband, Theodore, a k a Thor (William Biff McGuire), who share their home with Aaronetta Gibbs (Elizabeth Franz), the unmarried sister of Ida and Cora.
This arrangement of long standing suddenly comes under scrutiny. Cora wants time alone for herself and her husband in their twilight years. She envies Esther Crampton (Piper Laurie), the oldest of the sisters, who lives some distance (well, walking distance) away with her husband, David (Buck Henry), an academic who has only disdain for his wife's family.
That seems to account for all the cast members, most of whom you've surely met before. Their careers run a spectrum from films like ''The Hustler'' and ''Carrie'' (Ms. Laurie) to the haunting recent revival of ''Death of a Salesman'' (Ms. Franz), from ''Bonnie and Clyde'' (Ms. Parsons) to the television show ''Sex and the City'' (Ms. Sternhagen).
Any of them you don't know already you'll feel intimate with by evening's end, even if the play gently insists that people can never truly understand one another. All the cast members are giving performances in which their characters' idiosyncrasies seem as organic as the color of their eyes or the shapes of their noses.
What's more, the four actresses playing the sisters are unusually convincing in suggesting both consanguinity and the pecking order conferred by their characters' ages. Ms. Laurie's Esther is unquestionably the eldest, not because she looks it but because of her casual air of centeredness and authority. And Ms. Franz, whose Aaronetta is coiled in perpetual resentment, exudes a fretful, fearful defensiveness that could only belong to the youngest.
These women are not necessarily cast to type, and the results are inspired. Who would ever have thought, for example, of the intense Ms. Parsons as the dutiful Cora, who has spent her life in passive acceptance? Or the trenchant Ms. Sternhagen as the endearingly vague Ida?
Yet it's the very friction between the personalities of the actresses and their parts that gives their performances such texture, reminding you that the personae imposed by family structures are not always natural fits. Yet whatever their reciprocal grudges, when these sisters form a united front, as they do when Mr. Henry's censorious David comes calling, they are formidable.
The actors playing the husbands more than hold their own amid this phalanx of women, which is saying something. So do Mr. Tobolowsky and Ms. Hagerty, who find new levels of desperation in awkward silences, as the pair of broken-winged lovebirds.
I'd nearly forgotten what it's like to listen to comic dialogue that doesn't insist on being funny and is all the funnier for it. Consider, for example, the depths of humor and pathos that Ms. Sternhagen and Mr. Tobolowsky mine from a conversation about women buying underwear for men, or the resonance Mr. McGuire brings to the mumbled announcement that he hates apples.
The discreet miracle of Mr. Osborn's writing is in the shadows he weaves into the sunniest exchanges. For ''Morning's at Seven'' is finally about the sense of isolation and failure that lies beneath even the most contented surfaces and the irrational urge to outrun death when darkness starts to fall.
The words ''alone'' and ''lonesome'' keep recurring in ''Morning's at Seven,'' and you can't help feeling that what is repeatedly said sentimentally of Aaronetta is true of the others as well: they are ultimately ''all alone in the world.'' In the meantime, however, there is warmth in the company of others. And you won't find more warming company than the family at the Lyceum.
"Morning's at Seven," a comedy that leans gently over flower boxes to peer briefly into the abyss, is back on Broadway -- indeed back at the Lyceum Theater -- less than 25 years after the revival that inspired a reassessment of Paul Osborn's largely forgotten 1938 play. The sense of discovery that attended that 1980 production is obviously absent here, and it's a rather unambitious choice for Lincoln Center Theater (should one of the city's leading nonprofits really be devoting its resources to reviving a play that was a commercial hit so recently?). But the play's pleasures are durable ones, and it affords a sizable cast of veterans a chance to display the gifts they've honed over long careers onstage and elsewhere.
Osborn's bittersweet comedy depicts a day in the life of a seemingly wholesome, but secretly eccentric, family in the small-town Midwest. Four sisters getting on in years live in cozy but dangerous proximity. At left, depicted with affectionate Norman Rockwellian clarity by designer John Lee Beatty, is the home of Cora (Estelle Parsons), her husband Theo (William Biff McGuire) and the "old maid" of the family, Aaronetta (Elizabeth Franz).
Right next door, in a house that, aptly, is its neighbor's twin, are Ida (Frances Sternhagen) and her husband Carl (Christopher Lloyd), along with their 40-year-old, chronically engaged son Homer (Stephen Tobolowsky). Just down the block are Esther (Piper Laurie) and her husband David (Buck Henry), whose curmudgeonly contempt for Esther's family makes it hard for Esty to keep up on all the family gossip.
But Esty has decided to defy David's disapproval of her family on this momentous day. Homer has finally brought home his fiancee of seven years, Myrtle Brown (Julie Hagerty), and her arrival proves to be a catalyst that sets off all sorts of unusual chemical reactions in this delicately balanced ecosystem.
Not-so-secret resentments are aired, threats are made, happy marriages and marriages-to-be are seemingly sundered, wells of loneliness are revealed. Through it all a cheery decorum is mostly maintained: The terrors of life are wrestled with, yes, but they're put aside when supper is ready. Spasms of hatred and despair are greeted with placid practicality.
Sternhagen is perfectly cast as the slightly bewildered Ida, who is unable to fathom either the meaning of her husband's dramatic crises of faith or her son's reluctance to marry.
Laurie brings a sly air of quiet amusement to the role of Esty, who treats the follies of sisters and husband as the wayward impulses of children who need a little indulgence.
Parsons turns in a deliciously complex turn as Cora, both funny and touching in the devilish excitement that comes upon her when her resentment of Aaronetta's presence finally begins to break out.
Franz's Aaronetta is hilarious in her blunt asperity, but the actress also beautifully renders the corrosive pain Aaronetta's been hiding for decades, the humiliation of living on her sister's charity while secretly loving her husband. Aaronetta's strangled declaration to Theo -- "Sometimes I wish Cora would die!" -- followed by a tearful and desperate apology, typifies the clear-sighted but sympathetic wisdom that infuses Osborn's writing, which is particularly well served by Franz's astringent and moving performance.
The male roles are also well cast. Lloyd's air of distracted intensity is just right for the dramatically despairing Carl, a man who puts on a cardigan sweater for a bout of existential angst. The bespectacled Henry is dryly funny as David, whose excessively cordial greetings to his in-laws neatly telegraph his pleasurable scorn for them. McGuire gives a subtle and restrained performance as Theo, a passive man who is tenderly solicitous of the feelings of both Cora and Aaronetta.
Tobolowsky is convincing in the somewhat aggravating role of Homer, whose reluctance to marry Myrtle is explained by the daring-for-the-time revelation -- it comes across as rather coy now -- that they've been sleeping together all the while.
Cuteness is in fact not always avoided in Daniel Sullivan's production, which tends to play up the charming eccentricities of its characters -- mostly the male ones -- in ways that smooth over the darker currents underneath. But this tendency is also present in the writing, which provides a spoonful of laughs for each gulp of its more medicinal ingredients, the glimpses into the loneliness and angst that flutter at the hearts of the characters like moths at a screen door.
This may be why Hagerty's performance is, along with Franz's, the most touching and memorable of the evening. Hagerty is a first-rate comedienne, and she gives full due to Myrtle's amusingly pathetic need to please her potential in-laws -- her giddily excessive effusions over the beauties of the backyard, for example.
But we're always aware of the real desperation in her sweet avidity, the fear that her patience with Homer has been a terrible mistake. In Myrtle's ever-imploring eyes and tentative gait Hagerty gently reveals the anxious soul tip-toeing along the edge of despair, her chatter a determined defense against the void. As a result, we savor much more deeply her inevitable rescue.