June 27, 2013

If you’ve ever wondered how much damage a drama critic can do, consider the case of N.C. Hunter. In the 1950s he was one of England’s best-known playwrights, the author of school-of-Chekhov domestic dramas of middle-class loss and uncertainty that embodied the nagging anxieties of postwar audiences. Then Kenneth Tynan went to work on him with a rubber hose, sneering at “the vacuity of [his] attitude towards life” and dismissively comparing him to the angry-young-man playwrights like John Osborne whom Mr. Tynan saw as the salvation of British theater. Result: Mr. Hunter’s plays slipped from sight. The Mint Theater Company’s off-Broadway revival of “A Picture of Autumn” is one of a bare handful of Hunter productions to be presented in this country since “A Day by the Sea” was seen on Broadway in 1955.

Never having seen or read a Hunter play, I was curious to find out whether he deserved Mr. Tynan’s abuse. Not a bit of it: “A Picture of Autumn” is impressive in every way, and the Mint’s staging, directed with quiet intelligence by Gus Kaikkonen and acted by a top-drawer ensemble cast, is so strong that in a perfect world it would trigger a general revival of interest in Mr. Hunter’s work.

Written and set in 1951, “A Picture of Autumn” is a group portrait of the Denhams, a trio of cash-strapped aristocrats (Jonathan Hogan, George Morfogen and Jill Tanner) who live in a moldering country house that they can no longer afford to keep up. All of them are growing frail and one is on the brink of senility. The oldest son (Paul Niebanck), a civil servant who has put his upper-class ways behind him, longs to move them into a modern flat, but the family’s memories of “the old days, when we had cooks and things” remain so vivid that they can’t imagine leaving.

In 1951 “A Picture of Autumn” was received by British playgoers as a study of a once-privileged class in decline. Six decades later, Americans who are trying to figure out how best to care for their own parents are more likely to give it an up-to-date spin. Either way, the Denhams’ plight is stingingly bittersweet, and Mr. Hunter, like Anton Chekhov before him, has sharpened its point by filling the play with comic situations that heighten the underlying melancholy. I wish he had had the courage of his tragic convictions—the last scene of “A Picture of Autumn” lets everyone off the hook rather too easily—but I can’t think of anything else with which to take issue.

Mr. Morfogen has the showiest role and carries it off with fetching flair, but his fellow cast members are in hot pursuit from curtain to curtain, and Charles Morgan, the set designer, has successfully crammed the elaborately appointed living room of Winton Manor onto the tinier-than-tiny stage of the Mint’s 100-seat theater, complete with a winding staircase. No doubt Kenneth Tynan would have hated every second of this revival, but it touched me to the heart.