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BWW Reviews: TEN CHIMNEYS at Artsts Repertory Theatre

You're most likely too young to remember Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne. I'm fifty, and they retired before I was born; they were footnotes in the theater history books I devoured in college. The Lunts became famous in the 1920s and 1930s, when they starred together in a series of plays on Broadway (and on endless tours). Married in 1922, they acted only with each other for most of their lives until retiring from the stage in 1958. Theater historian Ethan Mordden describes them this way: "It wasn't so much that they were always rehearsing as that they were always performing, enjoying their trademark overlapping dialogue not only in the theatre but everywhere else in their peculiar version of real life; balancing his sulky boy with her teasing mother all the more easily because she was (secretly) five years his senior; and playing the most provocative love scenes onstage while fooling everyone about the asexual nature of their marriage. Or were they fooling?"

Ten Chimneys takes place on the Lunts' estate in Wisconsin in 1938 as they prepare for a production of The Seagull. Alfred's mother, half sister, and half brother hover around, and two of their fellow actors show up to rehearse the play: Sydney Greenstreet (not yet a famous movie character actor) and Uta Hagen (a teenager just beginning her career). The innocent Hagen is terrified of the Lunts, shy, yet still able to voice her opinions and make her talent known. Rehearsals commence, Alfred flirts with Uta (or does he?), and family secrets are revealed.

If you're going to take on the Lunts, who were famously enigmatic, you'd better have a firm idea of what their marriage was about and how they interacted when they were alone with each other. Playwright Jeffrey Hatcher doesn't seem to know how he feels about them; the script has a lot of theatrical jokes and shows us how they created their stage illusions, but it's about as sophisticated as an episode of Frasier. Alfred and Lynn rave on about their needs and their process, and they rehearse bits of Chekhov over and over, but then they fall into the same psychobabble heard in every marital drama since Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Alfred's mother is another drama queen, but she's just there to give Lynn the opportunity to make mother-in-law jokes, and the half sister and half brother seem to have wandered in from a completely different play. The visitors, Greenstreet and Hagen, have some nice moments of their own but seem to have shown up just to give the Lunts an audience.

That said, Artists Repertory Theatre has given the play a smashing production. Michael Mendelson and Linda Alper are just right as the Lunts, going over the top without becoming obnoxious. Alper especially knows just how obstreperous she can be without getting on our nerves. They manage to create sophistication when the playwright hasn't provided sophisticated characters. Abby Wilde, as Uta Hagen, has a deep voice and an authoritative manner, and you can see the future acting teacher in her posture and proclamations about acting. To be honest, I don't know enough about the Lunts or Uta Hagen to know how they rate as impersonations, but I enjoyed the performances without caring. Todd Van Voris has a lot to live up to as Sydney Greenstreet (we've all seen Casablanca, after all), but he creates a touching portrait of a struggling actor amused by the crazy antics of the Lunts yet troubled by his own family life.

JoAnn Johnson is wonderful as Lunt's mother, hammy in her own way, eternally trying to push her daughter-in-law out of the way, and her transformation in the play's final scene is surprisingly moving. Sarah Lucht and Chris Harder do the best they can with the thankless roles of Lunt's half sister and half brother, she always complaining, he forever lazy, but the parts are so underwritten that the actors can't even manage to get laughs.

Director Damaso Rodriguez keeps the play moving swiftly; the dialogue snaps and the actors play off each other beautifully. The play seems to be intended as a farce, but he finds the deeper moments in the text and has the actors bring them out. His staging for the rehearsals of The Seagull is hilarious, showing the Lunts running the same lines over and over in a variety of ways, trying to find ways to play even the slightest scene perfectly. Larry Larsen's scenery and E.B. Brooks's costumes are just right, creating the period atmosphere you'd expect for a Broadway couple at their country home.

The play looks and feels like a bright, witty comedy, the kind that used to light up Broadway stages year after year. But the substance just isn't there, no matter how hard the director, the cast, and the designers try to make it happen. It's funny...but that's all it is.

Regional Awards

From This Author - Patrick Brassell