Photo by Craig Schwartz

Old Yellers

THE AHMANSON AUDIENCE APPLAUDED JOHN Lee Beatty's set as soon as the curtain went up on Paul Osborn's Morning's at Seven. There was much to applaud: Two gorgeously rendered Edwardian homes, seen from behind, stand side by side in the summer shade of Midwestern trees, identical with their gables, scalloped shingles and balusters.

Inside, lighting designer Brian MacDevitt's soft chiaroscuro allows us glimpses of an old Victrola and some bits of wallpaper and polished wood. If carpentry alone were the measure of a play, we could have folded our programs then and there and gone home happy. But we had come for more — no less than Daniel Sullivan's Tony- nominated revival and its highly regarded cast, all but one of whom come from Sullivan's Lincoln Center production.

Set in 1938, the play is a lighthearted look at late-life family crises that tear at people who should be serenely enjoying their golden years instead of bickering. Its story isn't so much a plot as a cascade of quarrels and eccentricities undammed when Homer Bolton (Stephen Tobolowsky), a 40-year-old mama's boy, finally brings Myrtle (Julie Hagerty), his sweetheart of no fewer than 12 years, home to meet the folks he lives with. His father, Carl (Paul Dooley), has promised to give Homer a nearby house to live in if he ever marries, but Carl is also a scatterbrained dreamer given to ambiguously described "spells," which he alleviates by resting his head against trees. His wife, Ida (Frances Sternhagen), in turn, accepts her son and husband with a prairie stoicism.

Next door, Thor Swanson (William Biff McGuire) is married to Ida's sister, Cora (Mary Louise Wilson); they share their home with Cora and Ida's unmarried sibling, Arry (Elizabeth Franz), who has lived with them for more than 40 years. Up the street in their "crystal fortress" lives a fourth sister, Esty (Piper Laurie), and her husband, David (Buck Henry). David is the town intellectual and regards almost everyone else with scorn — he's content to appear occasionally and make condescending cracks to the others.

When we first meet David he has just decided to live apart from Esty, although to remain in the same house; before long he'll persuade Carl to leave Ida and move in with him, which Carl eagerly agrees to do — after deciding to give Cora and Thor the house he'd been setting aside for Homer. This house swap poses the greatest danger to the group's cohesion when the gesture unexpectedly reveals a brief, long-ago affair between two of the characters.

Suffice to say, the contretemps all come to naught, and by play's end everything is tidily put back in its proper drawer. What has charmed audiences since this revival's Broadway premiere in April is the guileless wonder with which the characters regard their lives — in other words, Morning's at Seven's time-capsule quality. We shouldn't forget, though, that these small-towners in turmoil were considered quaint even in 1938 when Osborn wrote the play — he was only 37 years old then, after all, and knew very well that characters named Homer and Myrtle could only be gullible innocents.

DIRECTOR SULLIVAN'S ENSEMBLE DOESN'T overplay the script's daffiness, even if Tobolowsky and Hagerty seem to have stepped out of a Collier's cartoon from the period. Instead, Sullivan's actors give the show the kind of humorous gravity more befitting a Chekhov play than a genial farce. (In fact, listening to Osborn's matter-of-fact, observational dialogue with my eyes closed, I could even imagine how the play could be turned into something resembling a Midwestern Waiting for Godot.) There are certainly moments of silliness — especially in all the weird male-bonding that borders on woman-hating — but the overall impression you get of these seniors is not of dotty or crotchety old gaffers, but of weathered oaks braving a late-season squall. MacGuire in particular brings an authoritative presence to the stage — his Thor, while hardly the godlike figure his nickname suggests, is still someone whose perspective the viewer instinctively trusts amid the other characters' antic behavior.

Some of the show's technical strengths, however, don't always work. While twilight is understandably the prevailing metaphor here, designer MacDevitt keeps the stage's upstage horizon dusky even when the time is clearly morning at seven. Too, Scott Myers' sound design often comes with a little echo; even Beatty's houses, once you study them, don't make complete sense, with each back porch having two doorways yet no apparent wall separating their entrances inside.

That we begin to notice the porch doors and mikey sound is a sure sign of our wandering attention. The play that keeps coming to mind during the show is You Can't Take It With You, if only because Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman's 1936 madcap comedy also involves family members with willfully odd pursuits. Yet Osborn's play is caught in an untenable middle ground because, although it is more serious a story than Moss Hart's, it is neither as funny nor modern enough to satisfy our contemporary longing for merciless candor. There are one or two surprisingly "adult" story points to Morning's at Seven, along with half a dozen wearily fatalistic lines (Arry: "I always thought of getting old sort of like going to bed when you're nice and drowsy . . . But it isn't that way at all."), but we never forget we're watching an artifact. And so, while we admire the craft of this show's lathed dialogue, its detailed naturalism and, perhaps, even the halo of lost innocence that surrounds its period, we can never quite forget that it was written in a time when plays were becoming far more outspoken about social and family matters than Morning's at Seven — which may explain why it flopped 63 years ago and was reset in 1922 for the hit 1980 Broadway revival.

If we don't necessarily go to the theater to enforce the aesthetic values of the present upon the past, we tend to mentally superimpose changes on a play when it doesn't develop enough in the second act. This process continues unabated the moment Morning's at Seven's intermission ends. When Homer begins a speech to long-suffering Myrtle, "I've got to tell you [something] before we go . . . It's not very nice," you hope he'll continue with "I'm queer" or "I've got Negro in me" or "Once I slept with a Jewess" — anything to shock the play back to life.

Whenever we watch a modern antique that is filled with zany, slapstick or madcap families, we can confidently assume the playwright was desperately tapping out a coded tale of deep dysfunction that the times wouldn't allow him or her to faithfully portray. But a stage artifact can't stand on its own very long — you can only raise the curtain on a beautiful set once and get applause. By Act 2 an audience begins to want more than more of the same, which, here, means people who are irritated with one another but not really threatened by any external menace. If, in the little world created by Paul Osborn, the Depression is a twister that so safely whirls beyond the corn fields and down the turnpike that it is never mentioned, then the emotional weather of his Middle American characters is an even more distant phenomenon, to be left to other writers to explore.

MORNING'S AT SEVEN | By PAUL OSBORN | At the AHMANSON THEATER, 135 N. Grand Ave., downtown | Through January 26


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