I had forgotten that they wrote plays like "Morning's at Seven," Paul Osborn's gentle, unassuming, but oh, so skillful comedy that was revived last night at the Lyceum. It caused no great stir when it first came to Broadway, in 1939, closing after 44 performances, nor is it likely to now, for that is not its way. Its way is to sneak up on you, and in this beautiful ensemble performance now before us it is an absolute charmer.
And then it occurred to me that Britain's Alan Ayckbourn writes plays like this; not the tricky, more aggresssive specimens that find their way here, but the quieter, serio-comic ones dealing with the prosaic lives of English suburbanites today with much the same humorous detachment with which Osborn approaches some occupants of a small midwestern town in 1922.
Well, not precisely the same. There is more sentiment in Osborn's writing, and it is not at all misplaced. He is best known, of course, for his fantasy "On Borrowed Time," but as it turns out, "Morning's at Seven" is a far better play, and one with unerring dialogue.
It has mostly to do with the elderly, which may be why it was given such short shrift originally (Broadway audiences have traditionally been cool toward plays about the aged). All but two of the nine characters are in their late 60s and early 70s, and those two, Homer and Myrtle, who provide the work's practically bloodless but hilarious romantic interest, are a respective 40 and 37.
The three acts take place during one mild late afternoon and the following morning in the adjoining backyards of the Swansons and the Boltons, whose white frame houses with gingerbread trimming are cheek by jowl. Cora Swanson's maiden sister, Aaronetta Gibbs, lives with Cora and her husband Thor (Theodore), and Ida Bolton, wife of Carl and mother of Homer, is a third sister. A fourth, Esther, lives down the block with her misanthropic husband David Crampton, a retired college professor who looks upon the Swansons and Boltons as "morons," and with some justification, and who refuses to have anything to do with them while trying to impose the same restraint on his wife.
They are a batty lot, but only heightened representatives of the deadening small-town life from which the more spirited young have habitually fled. The mild-mannered Carl, a carpenter and builder who once aspired to be a dentist, has a habit of wandering off in search of the fork in the road where he made the wrong turning. Aaronetta has harbored a guilty secret (known to all) for 40 or 50 years, and Homer has been courting Myrtle for 12. A fine, unoccupied house that Carl wishfully constructed on Sycamore Hill for Myrtle and Homer, who still lives at home, and that is sought after by Cora as a place in which she and Thor can spend their remaining days alone (leaving the old house to Aaronetta), stands as a symbol of various desires.
In the end, all get their wishes, and while it is a sentimental finish, it is also a funny one and true to the spirit of this disarming play. In Osborn's America, Moscows are within reach of all sisters.
The cast is exemplary. Elizabeth Wilson is as proper a nuisance of an old maid as you are ever likely to encounter, and David Rounds is miraculously right as the tongue-tied, fumbling mama's boy with a spine, after all, and more. But this is not to single them out at the expense of Teresa Wright's quietly determined Cora, Nancy Marchand's bewildered Ida, Maureen O'Sullivan's sunnily level-headed Esther, Lois de Banzie's terribly plain and terribly patient Myrtle, Gary Merrill's superior David, Maurice Copeland's easygoing Thor, and Richard Hamilton's hangdog Carl. What a joy they are, every one!
Vivian Matalon has staged the play impeccably, pacing it like a canter on a summer day. William Ritman's setting, Linda Fisher's costumes, and Richard Nelson's lighting evoke the time and place perfectly.
The four sisters. Chekhov would have smiled. So will you, and laugh out loud at times, too.
Forty years ago, Paul Osborn's play Morning at Seven flopped on Broadway. Don't ask me why. Last night at the Lyceum Theater it came back in total triumph. It is absolutely entrancing. With its flawless ensemble acting the play's magic held me from beginning to end.
In tone it is a little reminiscent of Thornton Wilder, but less wilder, more milder and a great deal less sentimental. The play is set in a mid-Western town in 1922 (the original production was set in 1939, but for obvious reasons of the picturesque this new version has been down-dated) where four elderly sisters live, three with their husbands, the other, unmarried, with one of the other couples.
The scene is the back of two houses, both built by Carl, who lives in one, with his wife Ida and their 40-year-old unmarried son, Homer, and the other being occupied by Cora and Thor and Cora's sister, Arry.
Homer is bringing his girl friend Myrtle home for a first visit - although they have been betrothed for eight years. Homer is not a rusher. The family group is completed by the eldest sister, Esther and her husband David, a former university professor. David dislikes the family, because they are "morons." But they are the sweetest morons you'll meet in a day's march.
The play is a genuine discovery. Osborn - who is still alive, he'll be 79 this year - made his Broadway reputation with adaptations, such as his version of John Hershey's novel A Bell for Adano. Morning at Steven has a certain reputation among community theaters across the country, but has had no major New York production since an Off-Broadway staging in 1955.
The reason for its neglect is simplicity itself. It doesn't read very well - and I read it for the second time only yesterday afternoon, when I thought it was slight, fey and not long for this world.
How gloriously wrong I was - in the right directorial hands it is a work of simple genius. It is the kind of comedy that can get an enormous laugh with a line such as Homer's first words: "This's the backyard." That in its context is a funnier line than any epigram George Bernard Shaw ever cooked up.
The title comes from that famous stanza in Browning's Pippa Passes that ends so exultantly "God's in His heaven - all's right with the world." Osborn is using the title somewhat ironically because during the play's brief time-span all hell breaks loose for these four Gibbs sisters.
It would be unfair to divulge much of the play's purpose, because it is totally devoid of smart jokes or tinsel wisecracks. It is one of the most wickedly funny plays on Broadway, but its humor is nothing but the detached observation of the comedy surrounding us, and the affectionate, and certainly flattering, portraiture of people the author might have known. People we might have known ourselves.
William Ritman, in his setting, has built a most handsome piece of real estate - the way prices are nowadays two house like these situated quietly in the Broadway area might even be worth more than the theater. A superb job, sagely enhanced by Linda Fisher's stylishly styleless costumes and Richard Nelson lighting.
Matalon has done a superlative job. He has made just the right cuts in the play - I should guess that almost half an hour has slipped away from the published text - and his cast responds to his skills like a fantastic ensemble instrument.
The cast has been impeccably chosen - there are nine actors and they perform like a miniature national theater, each and every one of them smashing home his or her performance, yet still retaining the team spirit, the ineffable sense of small town life that transforms these vignettes into a dramatic experience.
I wouldn't change a hair on the head of any cast member, I wouldn't even change a beat, a syllable, a glance. Yet while the parts are all absolutely equal, five of them are more absolutely equal than the others.
As the vinegar-and-honey Mid-Western sorority, the quartet of Nancy Marchand, Maureen O'Sullivan, Elizabeth Wilson and Teresa Wright just could not be bettered. They ought to be nominated in the Tony Awards as a quartet - and the Tony rules should be amended to accomodate these splendid ladies of the American stage. There is no sense in having rules if they can't be circumvented into an exception that proves them. Wonderful ladies, wonderful acting.
In fairness they nearly have their thunder stolen by the idiosyncratic fireworks of David Rounds as a sweet, dim-witted Homer, clearly intent on proving that both love and Homer are blind.
Please see this lovely play. Its images of innocence will warm your heart and delight your fancy.
When Paul Osborn wrote "Morning's at Seven" in 1939, he of course borrowed his title from that bit of Browning that ends with the notion that all's right with the world. I have a suspicion that all is not right with the world just now. But I'm dead certain that all's right with "Morning's at Seven." It's enchanting.
As the curtain goes up at the Lyceum you rather imagine that you're in for a carefully quaint, ruefully tender, Americanized version of Chekhov. Four sisters, not three. But only three husbands among them. Two houses, adjoining, with potted geraniums, wicker chairs and porches wearing scrollwork crowns. The sunlight slanted at an angle calculated to bring out memories, and regrets, in the elderly. The territory looks familiar.
It's not. Just a few minutes after we've learned that three sisters live here (two married, one a snappish spinster), we feel the stir of a hushed whirlwind as Nancy Marchand bolts out of her house (the one on the left) to summon her siblings, furtively, urgently.
Her husband is having one of this "spells" again. But he doesn't have spells the way other people do. Doesn't faint, or anything like that. He simply leans forward, from wherever he is, until his forehead presses itself dolefully against the nearest wall, his feet far enough away to make him look like the hypotenuse of a dismayed triangle.
His mental condition, however, is not Miss Marchand's sole concern. The problem is, he's in the way. Because of his odd posture, everybody has to walk around him, and that's awkward in a busy household. Won't everybody please come help?
You don't really know which part of the problem concerns the lady more. And, with this funny little ambiguity, playwright Osborn's sly, oddball, glitteringly stylized slant on life begins to sneak into view. As it does, you notice that Miss Marchand is doing the very best work of her long career. So, practically, is everybody else.
We do meet her husband, who is soon planting his forehead against a sympathetic tree. In Richard Hamilton's performance, he looks like a defrocked sheriff, though too short ever to have been given a badge. He once did entertain the "noble ideal" of becoming a dentist, but he somehow muffed the opportunity. He's wasted his life; he missed the fork in the road he should have taken (he's often scuttling crab-like down the road to look for the fork); in his late 60's, he "doesn't know where he is." And yes, he does seem to have stated the twilight theme of the play. But it's all trickier and much tastier than that, as I'll try to explain in a minute.
We meet Miss Marchand's middle-aged son (David Rounds), who seems carved from a block of wood just like Pinocchio, who moves with the automated unpredictability of a marionette, and who - when put to the task of thinking - appears to think by sorely straining his sinuses. Though he has been "going with" Lois de Banzie for quite a few years - about 12, it would seem - he has just now brought her home to mother for the first time. Miss de Banzie has the china face that he glimpsed through a rain-streaked window, she is most shy and sweet in her temporary insecurity, and, having announced "I feel like crying," she burst into a cannonade of laughter that would send a hyena scampering. The two have a house all picked out and, unless Mr. Rounds can avoid it, they just might get married.
I really didn't mean to single out Miss Marchand and family, I just had to start somewhere. Superb in their own right are Teresa Wright (married to Maurice Copeland next door) and Elizabeth Wilson (in love with Maurice Copeland next door). This ménage a trois is a bit suspect in some quarters, and it ultimately leads to a skirted Keystone Kop chase round and about the house and garden in pursuit of a telltale document. Meantime, Miss Wright alternates between jumping up and down like a primly behaved yo-yo at the merest sight of visitors and tucking her head against her shoulder - wise as a reflective hen - as she schemes to get her husband for herself.
Fourth sister: Maureen O'Sullivan, declaring herself 72 with her everlastingly pretty smile and sneaking by to see her kinfolk though husband Gary Merrill has forbidden her to. Mr. Merrill finds his in-laws spectacularly unintelligent, and, wearing his most genial grin, tells them so to their faces. In fact, he threatens, if his wife keeps on seeing them he's going to split up his house and seal her off on the second floor. Naturally, she continues to see them; otherwise we wouldn't have those knowing eyes to look at or her well-remembered, faintly froglike voice to listen to. And, naturally, she gets caught, a situation which at least solves her identity problem. "I know where I'm at," she instantly and cheerfully announces, "I'm on the second floor."
There, I think that mentions everybody. These nine charmed people play together, under Vivian Matalon's extraordinarily perceptive stage direction, as though they'd been happily related colleagues for years and years. I don't know whether any of them have met before; it's unlikely anyone present has done much time in repertory. But if you wanted to show someone what a repertory company should look like, the Lyceum would be the place to take them.
The company is astonishingly responsive, one member to another. Watch Miss Wilson, attending to an incipient quarrel between Miss Wright and her husband, walk into the house directly between the two, breaking their contact as though she was shattering a great invisible spider web. Listen to Miss Marchand suddenly ask her son if he loves the girl he's brought home; the question, all unexpected, cracks the night in two, leaving it entirely to the crickets.
You'll notice that these last few instances do carry a burden of seriousness with them. The play is not farce, or anywhere near it, though it's funny enough to lend farce a few extra laughs any time. Behind its charmingly eccentric facade, "Morning's at Seven" does in fact deal with small, unsatisfied lives. Indeed, its people are so mired in routine that they must make crises out of commonplaces. If Miss Marchand's husband is 20 minutes later than he should be, she wants the police dragging the river instantly. (There is no river anywhere near.)
At the same time that so little is happening, a very great deal is happening. The play isn't a gentle genre piece, an idle ticking away of frustrated hours. Mr . Osborn's vision is double, and penetrating on both sides. The playwright has blown up what is sad until it no longer looks sad at all, just as preposterous as it inherently is; because it now threatens to pop in your face, your funny-bone takes over. Wishing to cheer up Miss Wright, a confidante lists for her all the things that have made her long life a happy one. She nods. "That's a lot," she agrees. Pause. "If that's all you can get." Bitter? Uh huh. With a light comic turn-about in the middle, for honesty's sake.
This seems to me a perfect production of a uniquely shaped play, merry and mellow and just possibly a bit mad.