Monday, October 1, 2012

Off Broadway: Ten Chimneys

L-R: Julia Bray, Byron Jennings, Carolyn McCormick, and Michael McCarty in TEN CHIMNEYS.  Photo by Carol Rosegg.
The title of the play Ten Chimneys by Jeffrey Hatcher derives from the name of the Wisconsin estate to which Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne repaired every summer.  Staged by The Peccadillo Theater Company, the play is currently receiving its New York premiere at Theatre at St. Clements on West 46th Street.  The play is an ambitious one, touching on everything from Lunt’s youthful homosexual longings to the threat that Uta Hagen might have represented to the Lunt’s unconventional marriage; from Lunt’s half-brother’s pool hustling to his half-sister’s self-sacrifice for the sake of her family; from Sidney Greenstreet’s compassion for his institutionalized wife to Lunt’s mother’s demanding and suffocating behavior toward her son.  Such ambition in a playwright often is a good thing but here Hatcher may have bitten off more than he could chew: none of the play’s many themes are fully developed and one leaves the theatre mildly disappointed that one has not seen the less intricate but more developed play that Hatcher might have written.

To be sure, Ten Chimneys does provide two hours of cheerful entertainment and some insights into the personae of Alfred Lunt (Bryon Jennings); Lynn Fontanne (Carolyn McCormick); Alfred’s mother, Hattie Sederholm (Lucy Martin); Alfred’s half-brother, Carl Sederholm (John Wernke), Alfred’s half-sister, Louise Greene (Charlotte Booker); Uta Hagen (Julia Bray); and Sydney Greenstreet (Michael McCarty).  Hatcher has written a backstage comedy with some interesting story lines and some clever repartee between the principals.  Moreover, theatre buffs, in particular, should appreciate the way in which he has managed to elucidate how actors can make overlapping dialogue work and how makeup ought be applied to create particular illusions.

And yet, when all is said and done, it is the ghost of Noel Coward (who is mentioned but does not actually appear in this play although he had been a guest at Ten Chimneys himself and was rumored to have engaged in a menage a trois with the Lunts) hangs over this production – to this play’s disadvantage.  Maybe it’s unfair comparing Hatcher to Coward because we have no reason to believe that Hatcher was seeking to compete with Coward in the first place but, given the theatrical personalities involved, such a comparison would seem to be inevitable and, once the comparison is made, it is Ten Chimneys that comes up short.

The play’s principal story line relates to the arrival of Uta Hagen at Ten Chimneys to rehearse her role in Chekhov’s The Seagull.  Her subsequent relationship with Lunt is mildly disturbing to Fontanne – not for what it migh portend between Alfred and Uta in the bedroom but rather for the challenge it might raise to the relationship between Lunt and Fontanne onstage.  For as we are reminded again and again, the Lunts have a rather inverted view of the stage and reality: their reality, and therefore their love for one another, is what takes place on stage; it is everything that is not on stage that is secondary.

A sub-plot entails Alfred’s meeting up again with his old college roommate, for whom he still might long.  But this sub-plot goes nowhere.  Finally we are treated to some minimal explorations of what might make Hattie, Carl, Louise and Sydney tick.  Hattie, based upon the Freudian beliefs of the 1930s and 1940s, the period in which the play is set, would seem to bear responsibility for Alfred’s homosexuality or sexual ambivalence.  Carl, the pool hustler, is presented as being as much an “actor” in his own sphere as Alfred is in his.  Louise is the play’s passive-aggressive victim.  And Sydney is the obsessively compassionate husband.

All of the actors are to be commended for their performances but the one standout for me was Michael McCarty as Sydney Greenstreet.  His depiction was spot on and watching him was like watching the “fat man” being brought back to life from Casablanca or The Maltese Falcon.

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