Paul Osborn’s “Morning’s at Seven” debuted on Broadway in 1939, and has clung to the fringes of the theatrical canon ever since. A dyspeptic example of American realism, like an apple pie lightly dusted with arsenic, it plunks its audience into the adjoining backyards of two modest Victorian houses that a few sisters in their 60s and 70s call home. During a late afternoon and the following morning, marriages crumble, siblings quarrel, a brief affair surfaces, an engagement breaks, a mother smothers. Just one big not especially happy family.
Old fashioned even when it opened, “Morning’s at Seven” became a regional theater darling and yielded two Broadway revivals, likely because it provides hefty roles for aging actors. Now, it is being staged at the Theater at St. Clement’s, where a new production by Dan Wackerman for his Peccadillo Theater Company opened Monday evening. It has a typically imposing cast — including Lindsay Crouse, Alma Cuervo, John Rubinstein, Tony Roberts — that would have been a bit starrier, but Judith Ivey tore a tendon during previews. Luckily, Alley Mills sidled in, reuniting with Dan Lauria, her spouse on “The Wonder Years.”
Peccadillo provided the last show I saw, “Sideways: The Experience,” in March 2020, before theaters closed for the pandemic. It was a work written and staged with such casual and thoroughgoing sexism, I started to think that maybe shutting down some theater wasn’t so bad after all. So to say that “Morning’s at Seven” is an altogether more pleasurable experience is maybe not saying very much. With its thin psychology, predictable structure and characters to laugh at, not with, the play serves a snoozy, somewhat bitter slice of small town life. Imagine Thornton Wilder without the radicalism, William Inge without the melancholy, Lillian Hellman without the flash.
Those neighboring Gibbs sisters — living with their husbands, except for Arry (Mills), who remains unmarried — have enjoyed relative contentment for 40 or so years. But one afternoon, Homer (Jonathan Spivey), the 40-year-old, failed-to-launch son of Ida (Cuervo), has come for an overnight visit and brought Myrtle (Keri Safran), his girlfriend of a dozen years. Somehow, that triggers the temporary cave-in of at least two marriages and considerable unrest in the home that Cora (Crouse) shares with her husband, Thor (Lauria), and kid sister, Arry.
As expected, these practiced actors perform with relish and finesse. Crouse is nicely sour as Cora, the villain of the piece until she isn’t. And Cuervo neatly represses some of Ida’s hysteria. Roberts, as David — the husband of Esty (Patty McCormack), the eldest Gibbs sister and the only one who doesn’t effectively live with them — earns outsize laughs for some of the play’s meanest speeches. As the younger couple, Spivey and Safran overplay their roles, but seemingly with Wackerman’s encouragement.
Mild yet ungentle, “Morning’s at Seven” — which borrows its title, ironically, from a cheery Robert Browning lyric — lets its characters politely abrade each other for the first two acts before tying up the story in a tidy comedic bow. What’s most distinct about the play is the acidity that runs through it, and the suggestion that maturity doesn’t necessarily breed content.
“I always thought of getting old sort of like going to bed when you’re nice and drowsy,” Arry says. “But it isn’t that way at all.” In its grimmer moments, the play hints at something wormy at the heart of this American pastoral. But instead of offering a wake up call, it repairs its broken family and just goes back to sleep.
Morning’s at Seven
Through Jan. 9 at Theater at St. Clement’s, Manhattan; morningsat7.com. Running time: 2 hours 10 minutes.