Lillian Hellman wrote the 1936 drama after she both had a hit on Broadway with The Children’s Hour and found herself dabbling with Hollywood screenplays. The thirty-year-old writer has set out to widen her dramatic playing field with her second project, aiming her tightly calibrated plot on a Depression-era America that was grasping with the personal and professional collisions in Capitalism. In Days To Come, the adults that at one time were childhood friends, become entangled deep inside a troubling conflict brewing at a small town factory between its workers and its owners. When this complex diorama first opening on Broadway, it was hit pretty hard by the critics, calling it excessive, overflowing with too many ideas, plots, and genres. Joseph Wood Crutch of The Nation stated: “One is not sure just where its center lies.” And in the Mint Theater Company‘s overdue revival, as directed unsteadily by J.R. Sullivan (Pearl Theatre’s Hard Times), that idea prevails. The plot points and traffic feel strongly crafted and intricately created, although the focus shifts numerous times and in many directions, with a great number of characters that add little to the movement forward. The central theme is dynamic but the focus unclear. One of the main problems residing within this production is that the feeling of 1936 small town Cleveland never fully resonates in terms of position and practicalities. It’s far too lax in its modern approach, failing to decipher status and place, while resting its approach in almost an old-fashioned English propriety. Fire and passion are substituted with dampness and polite behavior. The production fails to find the rise and fall within each scene, losing the rhythm that was fairly well constructed within the writing. It leaves us with a too even keeled emotional debate, without a dramatic central core or battle to fight about.
Beautifully designed by Harry Feiner (59E59’s The Violin), with lovely costumes by Andrea Varga (George Kelly’s The Fatal Weakness), subtle lighting by Christian Deangelis (Mint’s The Lucky One), and solid sound by Jane Shaw (Mint’s Hindle Wakes), the piece is well crafted and expertly presented. The well structured play is given a staging that opens up as easily as that gorgeously designed office space that expertly materializes before our eyes. Jane Brookshire (Roundabout’s The Philanthropist), as Julie, makes a fine well-off wife to the decent principal owner, Andrew Rodman, of the brush company at the center of the turmoil. She’s a complicated woman, unhappy and lost, carrying on an affair that never really rings true. She grasps for things that she hopes will change her life without really actively knowing what she really wants. It’s a calibrated performance, as the uncomfortable woman who doesn’t know who she is or what her place is in the world around her and could have been an intriguing subplot if the passion was more inspired. Her husband, played with steadfast restraint by Larry Bull (Encores’ 1776), is a very fine gentleman, struggling to keep his father and his grandfather’s brush company afloat in difficult times. With his grandfather’s grave and stoic portrait hanging over the procedural, he finds himself trapped in a way his predecessors never dreamed of. He can’t afford the wages his loyal workers and fellow town-folk need and want, and finds himself in a no-win situation that escalates once the workers, figure-headed by the solid Thomas Firth, played with solid conviction by Chris Henry Coffey (PH’s Frank’s Home), decide to strike.
Arriving with the good hard-working and loyal Tom to try to solve a problem that is escalating, is the well-meaning union man, Leo Whalen, played by the handsome and subtle Roderick Hill (TFANA’s Cymbeline). He’s instantly the most solid object in the room, morally speaking. He arrives alongside Andrew Rodman, pleading for a resolution as the stereotypical heavies, lead by the determined Sam Wilkie, played by Dan Daily (Keen’s The Dining Room), and two card-playing tough-guy side-kicks, portrayed by Geoffery Allen Murphy (Broadway’s The Nance) and Evan Zes (Soho Playhouse’s Rent Control) as cutout creations of what a movie character thug looks like. Whalen doesn’t want this to escalate into something they will all (hopefully) live to regret, but he’s working against the darker urges of humanity here, and destiny has its own way of working. It’s also not surprising that Rodman’s wife, Julie is drawn to this fine man, desperate to explore something else beyond the sheltered and passionless life she says she has been living, although because her intent is not well displayed in emotional or mental turmoil, the action feels more plot point driven than authentic.
There are a few other characters mulling around this labor dispute, all taking on moral and societal roles to further dramatize the positions. There is the well-to-do slick lawyer, Henry Ellicott, played a bit too plainly by Ted Deasy (Clurman’s A Phoenix Too Frequent), who seems unfettered by the possible violence that may occur because of the stalled strike. He seems only mildly engaged with the affair he is having with his best-friend’s wife, more interested in the financials than personal relationships. He seems fine with that role, although why he is anyone’s friend or lover in the household of Days To Come is hard to say. It is only as disconcerting as the overly mean characterizations of the two diametrically opposed women within the home; the haughty sister of Rodman’s, Cora Rodman, played hilariously by Mary Bacon (Horton Foote’s The Roads to Home) and the head of the hired help household, Hannah, played to extremes by Kim Martin-Cotten (Broadway’s The Little Foxes) with some help by the young maid, Lucy, portrayed convincingly by Betsy Hogg (MTC’s Linda). They all seem to have their place in the social and economic hierarchy, although some real earth-bound and emotionally pure dynamics firing from their pistols would have created a more synergistic reality that we could find reason to invest in.
I was never really sure whose story we were really be asked to load ourselves within, as there are many social and political statements being presented and aimed at discussing, each encapsulated by usually two opposing fractions and personas. Each one is found to be compelling but slightly too modulated and emotionally polite to take in. A labor dispute in a small Ohio town rips apart these souls, pushing them into opposing camps within a war in which no winners will emerge, expect a few business men who get what they want in the end, without mercy or thought. There is an attempt to balance the competing claims and characters into the camps of owners and workers, but because both are represented as valid and true, the failure to find the dynamic rise and fall seems to flattened out the war.
They all sit and chat as if the stakes aren’t that high and they are well aware how long this scene is. The blocking that these fine actors are given is just as awkward in purpose and style. They move around with very little purpose, sitting awkwardly and unnaturally against each other. When it first premiered on Broadway, Communist publications denounced Hellman’s failure to take sides as one of the more troubling structural elements. Publishing magnate (and the inspiration for “Citizen Kane“) William Randolph Hearst was said to have walked out quite loudly with his entourage in the middle of Act 2, with mainstream New York press punishing her with reviews that were equally as unkind, even when coming from the liberal left-wing critics. Maybe it was the timing and the presentation that caused such a firestorm, but this production is too well-mannered to be offended by. The actors all do their best, delivering well spoken lines in an intricate war, but the passion and purpose evades the director. This isn’t an old British drawing-room comedy, but as presented her at the Beckett Theatre on Theatre Row, it feels like one.
Roderick Hill and Dan Daily
Photo by Todd Cerveris.
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