by Hugh Hunter
“Ten Chimneys” by Jeffrey Hatcher centers on the celebrated acting team of Alfred Lunt and Lynne Fontanne. Now running at Old Academy in East Falls, this married couple shunned Hollywood and dominated American theater in the ‘30s and ‘40s.
The Lunts spent every summer on their family estate at Genesee Depot, Wisconsin where they hosted theater luminaries and slavishly honed their craft. (Their estate is now a major tourist attraction). We first meet them rehearsing Chekhov’s “The Seagull,” a play they actually performed and which also debuted Uta Hagen.
Alfred and Lynne pour the passions of their relationship into the Chekhov characters they portray. And playwright Hatcher surely intends that the turmoil in the actors’ social circle at Genesee should mirror the comic-tragic pathos we see in “The Seagull.”
Alfred and Lynne were inseparable on stage and off. But there is trouble in Camelot, and it is widely believed their relationship was a “marriage of convenience.” Act one ends with Lynne in a fit of rage, jealous of Uta and angry over Alfred’s most recent homosexual hookup.
Director Charlotte Higgins and her team work wonders with the set. A garden patio gives way to a larger indoor studio. Later you hear Alfred and Uta performing a scene off-stage to a parlor audience, and magically the stage begins to feel like a country estate. (Ten years ago Old Academy sets were laughably bad).
The actors are a pleasure to watch. Rob Rosiello plays Alfred with a sexually ambiguous, Noel Coward flair. Sandra Hartman creates a Fontanne who is elegant but who also fears growing old and fights to keep her emotions in check. It would not surprise me if the real Lunts were much like what we see on stage.
The relationship of Alfred and Lynne is intriguing. But after Act one they all but disappear. Either playwright Hatcher loses interest in them or does not know how to proceed, and attention shifts to all the other members of the Lunts’ entourage.
Alfred’s sister Louise (Jane Jennings) has a plate-throwing conniption over her unhappy life. The pool hustler career of brother Carl (Ben Marshal) crashes to a horrible end. And Alfred’s comically catty mother Hattie (Susan Lonker) grows dotty.
The revelations keep coming. We learn that actor Sydney Greenstreet (Randy Shupp) is in despair over his mentally ill wife. Uta Hagen makes an 11th hour reappearance to confess her reasons for bailing out of the “Seagull” show. You wonder what is happening with Lynne and Alfred while all this is going on.
The parallel to Chekhov never feels compelling. “Ten Chimneys” is more like a party that goes sour because the guests will not go home. It gives a strong sense of a theatrical world, but as “Chimneys” becomes episodic, it loses dramatic urgency, and the strong production at Old Academy cannot fully save Hatcher’s script.
Old Academy is located at 3540-44 Indian Queen Lane. “Ten Chimneys” will run through May 10. Reservations are available at 215-843-1109.