Thursday, January 19, 2012

Ten Chimneys

Cleveland Play House inaugurates Second Stage with TEN CHIMNEYS

Believe it or not, for much of the 20th century, Genesee Depot, Wisconsin, was considered the center of the U. S. theatrical world. The site houses Ten Chimneys, the home of Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, considered by many to be the king and queen of Broadway theatre. The likes of Helen Hayes, Laurence Olivier and Katharine Hepburn were guests. In 2003, Ten Chimneys was opened as a museum for theater, the arts and the art of living (

The Cleveland Play House’s Michael Bloom directed, Jeffrey Hatcher written TEN CHIMNEYS attempts to introduce us to the life style, acting skills and personal relationship of Lunt and Fontaine.

The play had its world premiere last January at Tucson’s Arizona Theatre Company, which commissioned the piece. Since then, due to positive reviews, it has become a much sought-after vehicle.

TEN CHIMNEYS is not totally factual, but is based on Hatcher’s imagination and information he gleaned about the couple, their life style and choices. The author indicates that his interest in the project had three thrusts: he was in the Lunt-Fontanne Theater in New York the day Lunt died in 1977 and became curious about the man, his reading of Hagen’s book, RESPECT FOR ACTING, and a tour of Ten Chimneys.

The story is set in the late 1930s. Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne have decided to perform Anton Chekhov's The Sea Gull. They plan and rehearse the play at Ten Chimneys, their legendary Wisconsin estate, surrounded by actors, Lunt’s mother, step-sister and step-brother. When a young actress named Uta Hagen arrives, a romantic triangle begins to mirror the events in Chekhov's play about passion and art.

Lunt, who was generally recognized as his era’s finest actor, was so confident of his abilities on stage that he made a point of playing at least one protracted sequence with his back to the audience, conveying his character's emotions with his voice and body rather than his face. (A technique Donald Carrier does as well in playing the role.)

Fontanne, born in Britain, was noted for her comic skills, but also possessed the ability to play great drama.

One issue that has fascinated theatre gossips for years was the couple’s sexual orientation. A book about them, DESIGN FOR LIVING, recounts that, “Their marriage was almost certainly sexless. Passion was what they enacted on the stage.” As Fontanne herself said: ''We were friends right away. . . . I loved him utterly. We were in the same profession. We were like twins.'' Hardly sounds like a recipe for romantic love or sexual passion.

The play hints at Lunt’s life issues: an enmeshed relationship with his mother; a series of love letters from Ray Weaver, a life long friend and roommate; and, his close friendship with Noel Coward, who was such a frequent visitor at 10 Chimneys that he had his own bedroom.

The script is filled with witty lines, sarcasm and snappy comebacks. For example, when Sidney Greenstreet, who was a stage actor before becoming a movie actor in such classics as THE MALTESE FALCON and CASABLANCA, cuts down his on-stage performing, Fontaine asks him "but don't you miss acting?" The run-ins between Fontanne and Hattie Sederholm, Lunt’s mother light up the stage. For example, when Lynn learns a package has arrived and breaks into a run to get it, her mother-in-law says, “only a full-length mirror could cause her to move so fast.”

Unfortunately, there are places where the writing lags in keeping the action moving.

CPH’s production is audience appealing and filled with humor, but seems overly long due to some languid pacing.

Donald Carrier makes for a wonderful Lunt. He plays off others well and creates a finely honed character. Kelli Ruttle is appealing as Uta Hagen (the multi-Tony award winning actress). She does an excellent transition from young ingénue at the start of the play to mature actress at the conclusion.

Emmy Award winning Mariette Hartley is spot on as Lunt’s drama queen mother. She has a great time with both the satirical and manipulative scenes. Gail Rastorfer suffers wonderfully as Lunt’s put upon step-sister. Jeremy Kendall as Lunt’s step-brother Carl, gets all he can from his limited role. Michael McCarty not only has the Greenstreet girth, but hints at the real life person without doing an imitation.

Jordan Baker never seems to totally grasp the underbelly of Lynn Fontanne. This is a hard role to portray. It requires being the passionate Fontanne of on-stage life, while being the dispassionate Fontanne of real life. In addition, there needs to be precise timing in order to get laughter from the sarcastic lines. Somehow, in spite of some excellent moments, Baker just doesn’t give complete texturing to the role.

Set changes, musical choices which are era correct, and lighting effects are all quite good.

The Second Stage is a completely flexible theatre. For this production, the configuration is theatre-in-the square, meaning the stage is completely surrounded by the audience. Only 6 rows deep, there are no bad sight line problems seats. Be warned, however, that if you are not steady on your feet, that requesting front or back row seats is advisable. You can get to the ground row via an elevator by requesting help of the house manager. You enter the theatre, which goes down from the entrance, so anyone can easily get to the top row. (Sounds confusing, but once you get into the theatre you’ll understand.) In addition, the 19 steps down to the seating rows are quite narrow, as are the spaces between rows, resulting in some people expressing fear of falling.

CAPSULE JUDGMENT: Even if it’s not of the same quality as the company’s first three shows in their new home, audiences should generally like CPH’s TEN CHIMNEYS. It’s very worth seeing.