Not much crackles in Northlight Theatre's Ten Chimneys | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

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Not much crackles in Northlight Theatre's Ten Chimneys

Playwright Jeffrey Hatcher doesn't put much at stake for his characters, which include Alfred Lunt, Lynn Fontanne, and Uta Hagen

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In November 1937 Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, then American theater's preeminent acting couple, called rehearsals for Chekhov's The Seagull. They'd cast a young, little-known actress named Uta Hagen in a lead role and invited her to their 60-acre Wisconsin estate, Ten Chimneys, to work on the play. Jeffrey Hatcher's new play Ten Chimneys, currently onstage at Northlight Theatre, focuses almost entirely on those few days. After two and a quarter hours of stage time, it's difficult to say why.

One could argue there was a lot at stake for both the Lunts and Hagen. The Lunts' exquisite naturalistic technique earned them near-universal acclaim (Lee Strasberg would proclaim, "The Lunts are the Method"). But by 1937 they began to feel trapped in "Lunt vehicles," light comedies and romances that threatened to turn them into irrelevant lightweights. Their Sea Gull might prove they were serious actors. Eighteen-year-old Hagen had just made a splash in her first professional role as Ophelia in Eva Le Gallienne's groundbreaking Hamlet. Now she would make her Broadway debut in a production that would draw massive critical interest.

Unfortunately Hatcher doesn't put much at stake for his characters. Instead he constructs an alternately breezy and plodding ersatz 1930s "well-made play" with extended domestic scenes among a coterie of characters meant to pass as sparkling wits—save for the lack of sparkle and wit in Hatcher's serviceable dialogue. He packs his script with accurate, momentum-stalling biographical information on all his characters (much of it seemingly lifted from Margot Peters's tremendously dull biography of the Lunts, Design for Living), but he plays fast and loose with one historical fact: The Seagull was cast in November and opened in March, yet everyone rehearses in summer clothes around the pool.

In addition to Lunt, Fontanne, and Hagen, Hatcher adds Sydney Greenstreet, a longtime member of the Lunts' acting company who's on the brink of Hollywood stardom. Circling the action are the year-round occupants of Ten Chimneys: Lunt's domineering, oedipal mother Hattie; his responsible, perpetually overlooked half sister Louise; and his shifty pool shark half brother Carl.

The playwright maintains an insular focus on this tight-knit group, invoking Chekhov's strategy in The Seagull. And he works overtime to draw parallels between that modern masterpiece and his own modest effort, an act of singular theatrical hubris. But of the many brilliant ideas in The Seagull he overlooks the most obvious one. Chekhov's characters live through a few seemingly pedestrian days that change their lives irrevocably. Hatcher's characters live through a few days that seem pretty much like any other. If there are serious, long-lasting consequences, he hasn't dramatized them.

In fact, in his hour-long first act he's dramatized almost nothing. Instead he stages a series of encounters that mostly illustrate character quirks and interrelationships. Hattie resents her son's wife for separating him from her "darling boy." Fontanne seethes under Hattie's condescension and disdain. Carl is bored, semidrunk, and needs money to square some debts. Louise wants a piece of her brother's stardom. Hagen is ambitious. Greenstreet is, um, fat.

It's quaint, facile, and creakily obvious. We know Louise wants her own spotlight onstage, for example, because when left alone she secretly enacts a scene from The Seagull using a broom for an acting partner. We know Hagen is hell-bent on becoming Lunt's new full-time partner because she immediately insists on rehearsing their kissing scenes—and twice grabs Lunt by the lapels and plants two passionate kisses that aren't in the script (with the ever-vigilant Fontanne hovering nearby, that's the sort of moment that turns Hagen into an idiot). Nothing builds, and beyond the revelation that Lunt may be harboring a closeted gay identity, few complications arise.

Director B.J. Jones has a capable, flexible cast on his hands. Lia D. Mortensen's commanding performance as the giddily confident yet profoundly injured Fontanne is particularly captivating. So it's a mystery why he so often encourages his cast to act with as much broadness as Hatcher's script.

In the second act Hatcher's tone abruptly turns dark, as various calamities loom. With a bit of substance finally injected into the script, it's a much more satisfying act. But Hatcher doesn't allow his characters' crises to render permanent damage (except on the always peripheral Greenstreet, whose relationship with his asylum-bound wife implodes). One gets the sense that after a few martinis and a rave or two in the Times, life will go right back to normal.

Hatcher ends with an odd coda, as the characters reconvene at Ten Chimneys just after World War II has ended. He gives them poignant speeches and meaningful stares, but he omits key information. Lunt and Fontanne spent the previous three years in England helping with the war effort (among other things, Lunt volunteered anonymously at St. George's Hospital emptying bedpans). They toured a propagandistic play, performing even when a bomb hit the theater one night and literally blew an actor out of the building. Surely those were days that forever altered their lives. It's a shame we hear nothing about them.

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