One of the pleasures in this latest revival of “Morning’s At Seven,” a quietly funny and surprisingly astute evergreen comedy about four aging sisters and their families who live cheek by jowl but don’t always see eye to eye, Is how many of the nine cast members could fit one of those “where are they now” features:
That’s the best friend in “Annie Hall” (Tony Roberts!)
There are the mother and father in “The Wonder Years” (Alley Mills and Dan Lauria!)
That’s the curly-haired Broadway star of Pippin! (John Rubinstein!)
Here are Alley Mills, Lindsay Crouse, Patty McCormack, Alma Cuervo as the four Gibbs sisters.
Such casting is surely a draw in and of itself, but it makes sense in several ways for the play. These familiar faces from stage and screen, who might look a bit different now at the Theater at St. Clement’s, are portraying characters who couldn’t be more familiar to one another, yet over the course of the play they begin to see each other, and themselves, in a new light.
As a play, “Morning’s at Seven” might also look familiar. The comedy by Paul Osborne which debuted on Broadway in 1939, derives much of its humor from the harmless eccentricities of its characters (much like many Broadway comedies of the era, such as “You Can’t Take It With You,” “Life with Father,” and “The Man Who Came to Dinner,” the last two opening the same year and doing much better box office.) But as the play progresses, it gains some shadows and more depth, just as the faces have gained some lines and more character.
The play won me over right away when Dan Lauria as Thor is explaining to Lindsay Crouse as his wife Cora about his visit to the doctor, who found him in perfect health – a diagnosis that disgusts him. “He’s just a lousy doctor, that’s all…By God, I don’t know how a doctor like that gets the reputation he has. Didn’t even say I had to give up smoking.”
“Well that’s silly,” Cora says in sympathy. “Everybody knows you ought to give up smoking.”
What’s implicit here is that Thor wants the doctor to tell him to give up smoking, but he has no intention of doing so. We soon see that the rest of the extended family is just as stuck in their ways. Cora is the youngest of the four Gibbs sisters. She and Thor have shared their house for more than 40 years with her unmarried sister Arry (Alley Mills.) The house next door is occupied by their sister Ida (Alma Cuervo), her husband Carl (John Rubinstein) and their son Homer (Jonathan Spivey.) On this particular day, Homer is bringing home Myrtle (Keri Safran) to meet the family, which excites Ida, but unnerves Carl, who hangs his head and hugs one of the trees in the yard as if grasping for a lifeline. He doesn’t like meeting new people, afraid of making a bad impression. His family calls this one of his spells. It soon emerges that Homer is 40 years old (Myrtle 39), and they’ve been dating for 12 years. They are officially engaged, but that’s been for years. Homer hasn’t made up his mind; he’s comfortable at home.
Rounding out the family is the eldest sister Esty (Patty McCormack) and her husband David (Tony Roberts) a former college professor who thinks almost everybody in Esty’s family are morons, and many other people too — including the president of his college, which is apparently why David is a former professor. David has forbidden his wife from visiting her sisters, afraid it’ll turn her into a moron as well, although they live just a block away.
It would be an exaggeration to say that Myrtle’s visit sets off a chain reaction; there are no explosions here. But, for people so resistant to change, there are a series of domestic crises, one leading to another, which also cause some revelations that are surprisingly modern , and some realizations that are something close to profound. Arry makes the biggest realizations, and takes the most drastic action — which turns out to be the funniest resolution of any plot I’ve seen on stage so far this season, and perhaps was in 1939 as well.
Osborn was a talented and prolific writer, and a well-read man (the title of this play is derived from Robert Browning’s “Song from Pippa Passes”) who went on to write the screenplays for East of Eden and South Pacific, among others. He was only 38 when he wrote “Morning’s at Seven,” and some will see a certain dated attitude towards older people in the play. It’s worth noting that almost all the characters are supposed to be in their sixties, but the actors playing them are in their seventies (and one, Tony Roberts, in his eighties.) Casting older was one of the many wise choices by director Dan Wackerman, because old means something different these days. Life expectancy in the U.S. was 65 years for women, and even younger for men, in 1939, when Osborn wrote his play. It’s now almost 79.
Still, some of the regrets and ruminations that the characters express about the lives they have lived so far, and the changes they want to make, might strike a chord even with some theatergoers who weren’t even born until after the last revival of “Morning’s at Seven” on Broadway, in 2002.
Morning’s at 7
Theatre at St. Clement’s through January 9, 2022.
Update: The show is now closing December 5, which is a surprise and a shame.
Running time: including an intermission
Directed by Dan Wackerman
Scenic design by Harry Feiner; costume design by Barbara A. Bell; lighting design by James E. Lawlor III; and sound design by Quentin Chiappetta
Cast: Lindsay Crouse as Cora Swanson, Alma Cuervo as Ida Bolton, Dan Lauria as Theodore Swanson, Patty McCormack as Esther Crampton, Alley Mills as Aaronetta Gibbs, Tony Roberts as David Crampton, John Rubinstein as Carl Bolton, Keri Safran as Myrtle Brown, Jonathan Spivey as Homer Bolton