While S. N. Behrman was one of the leading Broadway playwrights from the twenties through the early sixties, he went into an eclipse after his death in 1973. Since 2000, however, there have been New York revivals of his major comedies The Second Man, Biography, No Time for Comedy and Rain from Heaven. Set in the living room of a summer cottage on an estate in Northern Maine where the rich Frothinghams go to get away from the problems of the world, circa 1936, End of Summer resembles Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard in that they both concern wealthy people refusing to recognize the changing social order. However, S. N. Behrman’s play is very much a comedy with its cool, urbane witticisms and very American in its outlook and content.
Beginning at the start of a summer during the height of the Great Depression, the play concerns three generations of women: Mrs. Wyler whose husband made millions in oil and who knows she hasn’t much longer to live, her daughter Leonie who lives on her romantic illusions and leads a separate life from her husband Sam, and their daughter Paula, just now turning of age and in love with Will Dexter, a poor college radical who has helped develop her social conscience. Visiting at Bay Cottage this summer are several people after the Frothingham fortune: Boris, Count Mirsky, an impoverished Russian exile who claims to be writing a biography of his famous father; Dennis McCarthy, a friend of Will’s who wants money to start a subversive new national magazine for college undergraduates, and Dr. Kenneth Rice, a brilliant psychoanalyst who is Leonie’s latest undertaking.
Although Dr. Rice claims to be disinterested, he would like a small fortune to start his own sanatorium. To this end, he attempts to manipulate all of the people staying at Bay Cottage. He convinces Leonie that she loves him and tries to make Paula drop Will. Although he is able to rid himself of some of his rivals, he meets his match in Paula who does not want to see him marry her mother. By the end of summer, everything has changed for all of the characters.
Though Harrington’s production is both elegant and polished, he made some serious mistakes in the characterizations. Leonie Frothingham is described as girlish and young; however, she does have a daughter of 20. Erin Beirnard, who previously impressed in Metropolitan Playhouse’s O’Neill (Unexpected) earlier this year, both looks and plays Leonie as though she is herself a teenager. The problem is that the behavior of a teenage girl in a mature woman is totally unacceptable, changing the character relationships. Her mother Mrs. Wyler is described as very elderly, knowing she is to die by autumn. Though she gives a measured performance, Sarah Saltus is too young to be convincing as an old lady who has seen it all. As Dr. Rice, the Machiavellian psychoanalyst, Kelly Cooper is always obvious in his scheming. Hence we don’t know why the other characters don’t immediately see through him.
Mary McNulty is fresh and delightful as the gay, irrepressible Paula who has all of her life before her. She makes her lines seem much wittier than they are, and causes Paula to seem the deepest character in the play. While Andrew Bryce as her radical boyfriend Will Dexter makes it perfectly clear that he would lose his integrity to take her money, we never understand what attracted her to him in the first place as they are never very romantic. As his friend Dennis, red-bearded David Friedlander plays too much the Irish leprechaun to be attractive to the romantically inclined Leonie who eventually goes after him. Brian Ott is excellent at capturing the gloomy melancholy of the Russian exile, but he also seems too young to have needed to escape from the Bolsheviks in 1936. Michael Hardart is rather ineffectual as Leonie’s husband Sam soon to be her ex, but this may be how he sees the character who has lived in the shadow of his wife’s money all of his married life. Nevertheless, the cast is fine in its handling of S. N. Behrman’s brittle witticisms and the high comedy which is beautifully paced through the play’s four scenes spanning May to November and sustained in its elegiac mood of things coming to an end.
Resident Metropolitan Playhouse costume manager Sidney Fortner has dressed Leonie to the nines with a stunning wardrobe which Beirnard changes frequently as they dressed for dinner in those days. However, McNulty’s costumes as Paula and Saltus’ dresses as Mrs. Wyler seem rather dowdy. Was the decision made that these are women who do not worry about clothes rather than that they are rich enough to dress exquisitely? Cao Xuemei’s design for the living room with its with wicker furniture with white and blue chintz upholstery and a magnificent view of the Maine coast is an attractive setting for the summer cottage where the entire action takes place. The uncredited Debussy-like music which beautifully introduces the mood of each scene may be the work of technical director Michael LeBron.
A play of social responsibility and disaffection at a time of great change, S. N. Behrman’s End of Summer is both a play of ideas as well as a high comedy of manners. While Alexander Harrington’s elegant production makes some strange casting choices, the play is a welcome rediscovery from America’s literary past.
End of Summer (through November 6, 2016)
Metropolitan Playhouse, 220 East 4th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 800-838-3008 or visit http://www.metropolitanplayhouse.org
Running time: two hours and 35 minutes with one intermission