October 10, 2012

"Ten Chimneys" Doesn't Give Off Enough Heat

In some ways, the Theatre at St. Clement’s, a haven for so many theatrical endeavors over the years, is the perfect place for Ten Chimneys, a play about the legendary actors Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne that The Peccadillo Theater Company is presenting there through Oct. 27.

But in other ways, the old church, which opened its doors in 1920 and has no elevators, isn’t a good place for this show at all. Because judging by all the people leaning on canes at the performance my theatergoing buddy Bill and I attended, the audience most likely to be drawn to this show is barely younger than the building itself. 

Somehow, however, everyone seemed to make it up the staircase to the theater and I suspect that most of them had a good time once they got seated. For playwright Jeffrey Hatcher has put together an amusing, if slight, tribute to a storied era in the theater. Dan Wackerman has directed it with obvious affection. And the real-life husband-and-wife actors Bryon Jennings and Carolyn McCormick are delightful as the Lunts.

The problem is that I’m not sure who besides my aged audience mates and a few slightly younger theater fanatics like me will want to see this show. In their heyday, the Lunts were among the most famous stage actors in the country. But despite having a theater named for them, they’re far less familiar to today’s theatergoers.

Even the Playbill acknowledges that. After the standard bios of the cast and production team, it includes little cheat-sheet biographies of Lunt and Fontanne and of Sydney Greenstreet and Uta Hagen, who also turn up as characters in Ten Chimneys.

The title is taken from the name of the home in Wisconsin where the Lunts spent their summer vacations.  It’s also the setting of the play, which begins in 1937 when the actors were preparing a production of Chekhov’s The Seagull. Hagen, just 18, was cast to play the ingénue Nina.

The story has often been told of how Hagen, who went on to many great roles including Paul Robeson’s Desdemona in Othello and the original Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, missed an entrance during the run. Lunt, left onstage waiting, was so infuriated that when Hagen did appear he took revenge during a stage kiss by biting her lip until it bled.

Afterward, Fontanne added insult to the injury by calling Hagen an amateur in front of the entire company.  In later years when she became a legendary acting teacher, Hagen would tell the story herself, using it as a cautionary tale for her students, one of whom was my buddy Bill.

Ironically the notorious incident never makes it onstage in Ten Chimneys.  Instead, Hatcher focuses on the less-fascinating, at least as he presents it, domestic lives of his characters: Fontanne’s squabbles with her overbearing mother-in-law, Greenstreet’s guilt towards his manic-depressive wife, Lunt’s uneasiness with his bisexuality and Hagen’s feelings of obligation towards her émigré parents. 

I’m a sucker for backstage stories, no matter how dated or inconsequential, and Hatcher peppers his play with enough tidbits about theatrical life, plus a few good bon mots, that I was satisfyingly amused. I even got a kick out of watching the stagehands shove around the elaborate but endearingly old-fashioned set during the intermission.

Still, Ten Chimneys has too much in common with The Grand Manner, A.R. Gurney’s memory play about the Lunts’ contemporary Katharine Cornell (click here to read my review of that). Neither tells a compelling enough story. If you don’t already care about these stars of yesteryear when you walk into the theater, you’re unlikely to care about them by the time you walk out.

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