“Morning’s at Seven,” a comedy that leans gently over flower boxes to peer briefly into the abyss, is back on Broadway — indeed back at the Lyceum Theater — less than 25 years after the revival that inspired a reassessment of Paul Osborn’s largely forgotten 1938 play. The sense of discovery that attended that 1980 production is obviously absent here, and it’s a rather unambitious choice for Lincoln Center Theater (should one of the city’s leading nonprofits really be devoting its resources to reviving a play that was a commercial hit so recently?). But the play’s pleasures are durable ones, and it affords a sizable cast of veterans a chance to display the gifts they’ve honed over long careers onstage and elsewhere.
Osborn’s bittersweet comedy depicts a day in the life of a seemingly wholesome, but secretly eccentric, family in the small-town Midwest. Four sisters getting on in years live in cozy but dangerous proximity. At left, depicted with affectionate Norman Rockwellian clarity by designer John Lee Beatty, is the home of Cora (Estelle Parsons), her husband Theo (William Biff McGuire) and the “old maid” of the family, Aaronetta (Elizabeth Franz).
Right next door, in a house that, aptly, is its neighbor’s twin, are Ida (Frances Sternhagen) and her husband Carl (Christopher Lloyd), along with their 40-year-old, chronically engaged son Homer (Stephen Tobolowsky). Just down the block are Esther (Piper Laurie) and her husband David (Buck Henry), whose curmudgeonly contempt for Esther’s family makes it hard for Esty to keep up on all the family gossip.
But Esty has decided to defy David’s disapproval of her family on this momentous day. Homer has finally brought home his fiancee of seven years, Myrtle Brown (Julie Hagerty), and her arrival proves to be a catalyst that sets off all sorts of unusual chemical reactions in this delicately balanced ecosystem.
Not-so-secret resentments are aired, threats are made, happy marriages and marriages-to-be are seemingly sundered, wells of loneliness are revealed. Through it all a cheery decorum is mostly maintained: The terrors of life are wrestled with, yes, but they’re put aside when supper is ready. Spasms of hatred and despair are greeted with placid practicality.
Sternhagen is perfectly cast as the slightly bewildered Ida, who is unable to fathom either the meaning of her husband’s dramatic crises of faith or her son’s reluctance to marry.
Laurie brings a sly air of quiet amusement to the role of Esty, who treats the follies of sisters and husband as the wayward impulses of children who need a little indulgence.
Parsons turns in a deliciously complex turn as Cora, both funny and touching in the devilish excitement that comes upon her when her resentment of Aaronetta’s presence finally begins to break out.
Franz’s Aaronetta is hilarious in her blunt asperity, but the actress also beautifully renders the corrosive pain Aaronetta’s been hiding for decades, the humiliation of living on her sister’s charity while secretly loving her husband. Aaronetta’s strangled declaration to Theo — “Sometimes I wish Cora would die!” — followed by a tearful and desperate apology, typifies the clear-sighted but sympathetic wisdom that infuses Osborn’s writing, which is particularly well served by Franz’s astringent and moving performance.
The male roles are also well cast. Lloyd’s air of distracted intensity is just right for the dramatically despairing Carl, a man who puts on a cardigan sweater for a bout of existential angst. The bespectacled Henry is dryly funny as David, whose excessively cordial greetings to his in-laws neatly telegraph his pleasurable scorn for them. McGuire gives a subtle and restrained performance as Theo, a passive man who is tenderly solicitous of the feelings of both Cora and Aaronetta.
Tobolowsky is convincing in the somewhat aggravating role of Homer, whose reluctance to marry Myrtle is explained by the daring-for-the-time revelation — it comes across as rather coy now — that they’ve been sleeping together all the while.
Cuteness is in fact not always avoided in Daniel Sullivan’s production, which tends to play up the charming eccentricities of its characters — mostly the male ones — in ways that smooth over the darker currents underneath. But this tendency is also present in the writing, which provides a spoonful of laughs for each gulp of its more medicinal ingredients, the glimpses into the loneliness and angst that flutter at the hearts of the characters like moths at a screen door.
This may be why Hagerty’s performance is, along with Franz’s, the most touching and memorable of the evening. Hagerty is a first-rate comedienne, and she gives full due to Myrtle’s amusingly pathetic need to please her potential in-laws — her giddily excessive effusions over the beauties of the backyard, for example.
But we’re always aware of the real desperation in her sweet avidity, the fear that her patience with Homer has been a terrible mistake. In Myrtle’s ever-imploring eyes and tentative gait Hagerty gently reveals the anxious soul tip-toeing along the edge of despair, her chatter a determined defense against the void. As a result, we savor much more deeply her inevitable rescue.