One reason we lasted so long is that we usually played two people who were very much in love. As we were realistic actors, we became those two people. So we had a divertissement: I had an affair with him, and he with me. Lynn Fontanne
You are cordially invited to a 1937 weekend at Ten Chimneys, the beautiful, Wisconsin summer home of Alfred Lunt (Byron Jennings) and Lynn Fontanne (Carolyn McCormick). Deemed the “celestials” by Laurence Olivier, the preeminent couple of American theater is taking a break from the dominant comedies of their collective careers (Noel Coward wrote Design for Living for the three of them) to try their hands at a production of Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull. Friend and repertory regular, Sydney Greenstreet (Michael McCarty), is there to play Sorin “G-String! You don’t look a day over 400 pounds,” as is a very young, but in no way naïve, Uta Hagen (Julia Bray) who’s been cast as Nina.
It’s idyllic, really, or would be if not for the arch acrimony between Fontanne and Lunt’s imperious, possessive mother, Hattie Sederholm (Lucy Martin). “Has anyone seen my copy of Oedipus,” asks Fontanne after a conversation peppered by Hattie’s criticism. “There’s no third wheel in Oedipus,” her mother-in-law counters. Darkly motivated meddling by both Hattie and Lunt’s step-sister, Louise Greene (Charlotte Booker), who’s ordered about like the help, complicates the proceedings.
Hagen’s seductive ambition (she would eventually cut a sexual swathe through the theatrical community) and the proximity of an important past love of Lunt’s, bring things to a head. Fontanne is no pushover, though the author is smart enough to let us glimpse her fears. Secretly 5 years older than her husband, she had bouts of insecurity. (Additionally, Lunt’s half-sibling, Carl—John Wernke—is up to his eyebrows in gambling debt threats.) Between which they rehearse. ‘Never a dull moment.
Have a glass of champagne. Dinner’s almost ready. We’re how many?! Pull up a wicker patio chair and observe the plumed birds in their natural habitat- no, wait, that would be on stage which, as Hagen finally observes represents real life.
Playwright Jeffrey Hatcher writes intelligent dialogue spiked with gloriously pithy zingers. Characters are defined by known attributes where possible, but never one dimensional. Only Uta Hagen seems somewhat generic, perhaps indicating she was, as yet, unformed. Situations present credible risk. Emotions simmer and boil over creating fallout. Sequencing is seamless.
Lunt and Fontanne had an extraordinary relationship. Married 55 years, though both were assumed to be bisexual, the couple was devoted. They acted together in 27 plays and three films. Intimacy is beautifully drawn. “I got lucky,” Lunt tells Hagen, “If it weren’t for Miss Fontanne- she elevates me.”
The piece is filled with wonderful theater details from technical (beat for beat) demonstration of the couple’s signature skill of talking on top of another in a staged scene (they were famous for originating a feeling of natural conversation) to Fontanne’s description of the requirements of Nina’s make-up in each act, so that the character’s feelings and physical state are illuminated. Oh, and there are instructions about wearing a hat.
Carolyn McCormick (Lynn Fontanne) is an elegant sylph in her character’s skin. Her Fontanne moves as if trained and accustomed to drawing all eyes, yet not self-conscious. McCormick reacts before she speaks processing information, making the moment feel fresh. She’s both fierce and vulnerable without falseness. Archness is played as world weary and sublime.
Byron Jennings (Alfred Lunt and McCormick’s real life husband) is regal in his domain, yet it’s clear both mother and wife have singular routes to his heart. Submission is manifested with differentiation and grace. In a less showy role, the actor is sympathetic and believable. His delight with dramatic suggestions that work is palpable.
Michael McCarty (Sydney Greenstreet) is excellent. Whether sallying a piquant retort or coping with his wife’s illness, he never less than fully inhabits the role. Phrasing is unusual, not imitative.
Julia Bray (Uta Hagen) does a yeoman like job but fails to convince us Hagen has within her the power or talent she, in fact, did. Her enactment lacks passion.
Director Dan Wackerman orchestrates beautifully. A two-handed Chekhov rehearsal with Lunt and Fontanne speeds up in direct relation to the actress’s frustration at successively messing up different lines, until it sounds like 78rpm. Finnito! The two cry falling into each other’s arms. Another two hander with Hagan in which the characters must kiss, is deftly awkward as prudence, ego, and attraction do a fandango. Fontanne’s draping herself across the top of the couch to kiss her husband is both perfectly natural and theatrically composed. The shedding of her robe for emphasis is inspired. I take issue only with Hagan’s standing in a spotlight outside the play to deliver a single speech.
Harry Feiner’s Scenic and Lighting Design is wonderfully atmospheric. The house is imposing, inviting, and surrounded by appealing garden. A nod to the green shutters of the original manse works well. Wicker patio pieces are apt and even appear a bit worn. When the structure pivots to reveal the interior, we want to curl up.
Costume Design by Sam Fleming is evocative of era, class and particular character. Every garment is aesthetically pleasing. Only a white evening gown, though it looks smashing on McCormick, seems out of place appearing long before the group dresses for dinner, at which point Fontanne wears something entirely different.
“We can be bought, but we can’t be bored.” Lynn Fontanne
The actual Ten Chimneys is open to the public: www.tenchimneys.org
The Peccadillo Theater Company presents
Ten Chimneys by Jeffrey Hatcher
Directed by Dan Wackerman
Theatre at St. Clement’s
423 West 46th Street
Through October 27, 2012
Photos: Carol Rosegg
L to R: Lucy Martin, Carolyn McCormick, Byron Jennings, and Julia Bray
Vertical- Carolyn McCormick, Byron Jennings
L to R: Julia Bray, Byron Jennings, Michael McCarty (seated), Carolyn McCormick