Review: Artists Rep’s ‘Ten Chimneys’

A backstage romp through everything that makes theater joyous sets an energetic note for the company’s incoming artistic director. Thru May 26

By Aaron Scott April 29, 2013

Michael Mendelson as Alfred Lunt and Linda Alper as Lynn Fontanne in Artists Rep's 'Ten Chimneys'

Image: Owen Carey

What does it mean to love art? To so truly admire and obsess over your medium that you’re willing to literally marry for it, and then bicker with it, cajole it, and forgive it, to say nothing of putting up with its family?

Jeffrey’ Hatcher’s Ten Chimneys reveals one such possibility. If ever there were two people so in love with their artform that they couldn’t separate it from their own relationship, it was the legendary theater couple Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne. Married for 55 years, the Broadway power players rarely appeared on stage without the other. And, at least in Hatcher’s wonderfully funny dramatization of their relationship, they rarely shared a room without the theater somehow playing a role in their scene.

Artists Repertory Theatre’s production is a grand backstage comedy—a theatrical romp through everything that makes theater joyous. It is a play about playing, a show about theater, and the medium is so deeply ingrained in our historic cast of characters—add the early movie star Sidney Greenstreet and nascent ingénue Uta Hagen to Fontanne and Lunt—that they narrate stage directions for themselves and others in their day-to-day life.

Ten Chimneys is the name of the Wisconsin estate Lunt owned, where he and Fontanne summered with a host of famous guests, and where his mother and half-brother lived year round (tended to by his disgruntled half-sister and her burnt muffins). The setting is the summer of 1938, and Lunt and Fontanne are rehearsing Chekhov’s The Seagull.

Everyone has a different idea about what the play is about, depending on their situation and its concomitant strife—whether they’re the flamboyant couple visiting or the hosts coping with wild guests. Greenstreet says it’s about “all the wrong people in love with all the wrong people,” and his summation serves to describe one of the main tensions in the play, if not the heart, as Lunt’s openness to Hagen’s romantic interest, as well as a previous relationship, torture Fontanne (and Hagen as well). But these are two people so ruthlessly consumed by their art that, above all, the show’s the thing, and everything else is subsumed as character motivation, though it continues to lurk unspoken just below the surface in proper Chekhovian fashion.

Ten Chimneys
Artists Repertory Theatre
Apr 23–May 26
Under the inaugural direction of Artists Rep’s incoming artistic director, Damaso Rodriguez (read our Q&A), the action is as quick as the script, the actors moving nimbly through comedy and drama both. The cast of seven—Linda Alper as Fontanne, Mendelson as Lunt, Abby Wilde as Hagen, Todd Van Voris as Greenstreet, JoAnn Johnson as Lunt’s mother, Chris Harder as his half-brother, and Sarah Lucht as his half-sister—dive into their roles with zest, although Oregon Shakespeare Festival veteran Alper shines particularly bright as the exquisitely complex queen of the stage, who seems to suffer more than Lunt for the emotional sacrifices they make for their work.

The most humorous and dramatic moments both, unsurprisingly, come between the two stage-crossed lovers. Their rehearsals together—apparently the couple was always running lines—are sheer dynamo. With each flubbed line, they drastically switch their style, so that for one read-through they’re moony eyed, and the next they’re circling each other and snarling like fighters, always overcompensating for their previous mistakes and utterly relishing in the interaction.

“There is nowhere I know Alfred better than on stage,” Fontanne tells Hagen at one point. Hagen follows with the obvious question: what happens when the two are not on stage?

“My dear, we are always on stage,” Fontanne answers matter-of-factly. And fortunately for us, we have front row seats.

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