It’s ‘The Seagull’ as smoke-and-mirrors romp in stylish Lunt-Fontanne frolic ‘Ten Chimneys’
By Lawrence B. Johnson
That master of the modern English comedy of manners, Noel Coward, might plausibly have written “Ten Chimneys,” the light-hearted toss of a play now occupying Northlight Theatre. It is so stylish, so wry, so – well, ephemeral.
And even though the actual author, Jeffrey Hatcher, didn’t include Coward in this frolic about actors Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne on their Wisconsin getaway estate, Coward was their good friend, frequently joined them at their retreat and comes up a lot in witty asides. I risk belaboring the connection because it helps me to get around trying to describe what this play is about, if indeed it is about anything beyond a certain lifestyle.
If there’s no need to explain who Noel Coward was, I suspect a dollop of history would not be amiss concerning Lunt and Fontanne. In short, they were the hottest acting team – and some would say the greatest – to ply the American stage from the early 1920s until their retirement in 1960. The title of Hatcher’s play is the name they gave their 60-acre estate at Genesee Depot, west of Milwaukee. The three dwellings on the property had a total of 10 chimneys.
Lunt died in 1977 at age 84; Fontanne died in 1983 at age 96. But Hatcher’s play catches them in the fullness of their remarkable career, or rather in their annual break from it when they kicked back at Ten Chimneys to putter in the gardens and entertain famous friends like Coward, Laurence Olivier, Katharine Hepburn and Helen Hayes. None of those superstars make it into Hatcher’s lineup, but Sydney Greenstreet – the droll rotund one famous for his cynical, smirking characters in “The Maltese Falcon” and “Casablanca” — does. And so does the young Uta Hagen, who visited Ten Chimneys in the summer of 1938 to rehearse the role of Nina for a Broadway run of Chekhov’s “The Seagull” to be produced by Lunt and Fontanne.
If this seems like so much historical footnoting, one asterisk more must be added: The meticulous care with which Lunt and Fontanne prepared their roles, and the dogged way they kept honing them even to the last performance, is legendary.
The best, meaning funniest, moment in this production finds V Craig Heidenreich’s suave Lunt and Lia Mortensen’s airy Fontanne going over and over a scene from “The Seagull” as their pal Greenstreet (played with palpable melancholy by Steve Pringle) reads along, stopping them when either actor misspeaks. But they don’t simply resume from that point: They go all the way back to the top, each time zipping forward to the trouble spot a bit faster than the time before. It’s a great gag and brought off with ever-accelerating hilarity.
The whole of Hatcher’s story is hung about “The Seagull,” which is to say the characters we’re watching play Chekhov also act out among themselves the same triangular angst that drives Chekhov’s play. Of course, pretty young Uta Hagen’s Nina becomes the same pot-stirrer in the play and the play-within-the-play.
Sara Griffin’s double image as Hagen/Nina keeps the pot merrily boiling and Mortensen’s openly annoyed Fontanne keeps the laughs coming.
But some of the funniest stuff comes from outside the “Seagull” circle – from Lunt’s long-suffering sister Louise, the under-appreciated caretaker of Ten Chimneys (played with dry wit and hard edges by Janet Ulrich Brooks) and Lunt’s smothering mother Hattie (the regally possessive Linda Kimbrough). The only thing Hattie and daughter-in-law Fontanne share enthusiastically is sarcasm.
Director BJ Jones and company have fashioned a spirited, enjoyable evening of theater reflected in designer Tom Burch’s brightly hued distillation of palatial Ten Chimneys. It may be no more substantial than smoke, but there’s charm in its passing drift.
- Performance locations, dates and times: Go to TheatreinChicago.com
- Tour the beautifully restored Ten Chimneys estate: Go to gallery with commentary
- Lunt and Fontanne in their prime: See photo gallery
Photo captions and credits: Home page and top: Alfred Lunt (V Craig Heidenreich) and Lynn Fontanne (Lia Mortensen) were the perfect stage couple. Upper left: Linda Kimbrough, left, as Lunt’s adoring mother Hattie with Janet Ulrich Brooks as his sister Louise. Lower left: Life was a rehearsal for Lunt (V Craig Heidenreich) and Fontanne (Lia Mortensen). Below: Lunt (V Craig Heidenreich) and the eager young Uta Hagen (Sara Griffin). (Photos by Michael Brosilow)