Art doesn't imitate life for the famed acting duo Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, the first couple of the American theater whom Jeffrey Hatcher affectionately portrays in his witty 2011 play "Ten Chimneys."
For this influential duo -- who dominated Broadway and headlined national tours from the 1920s to the '40s -- art is life.
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"Ten Chimneys"★ ★ ★
Location: Northlight Theatre, 9501 Skokie Blvd., Skokie, (847) 673-6300 or northlight.org
Showtimes: 1 and 7:30 p.m. Wednesday; 7:30 p.m. Thursday; 8 p.m. Friday; 2:30 and 8 p.m. Saturday; 2:30 p.m. Sunday through April 15. Also 7 p.m. April 1 and 15; 1 p.m. April 3. No 2:30 p.m. show April 8; no 7:30 p.m. show April 11
Running time: Two hours, 10 minutes with intermission
Parking: Free parking in lot
Rating: For adults, contains brief nudity, adult subject matter
"My dear, we are always onstage," says Fontanne, played with irresistible charm and candor by the terrific Lia Mortensen in BJ Jones' quite-pleasing Chicago-area premiere at Northlight Theatre.
For Lunt and Fontanne, who insisted on always working together, real life is what happens onstage. The rest is waiting in the wings for the cue.
Hatcher's fictionalized account of these exacting craftsmen -- known for popularizing a more realistic style of acting -- is more than a backstage glimpse into the private lives of a couple who counted NoŽl Coward, Helen Hayes and Laurence Olivier among their chums. It's a valentine to theater. More specifically, it's a valentine to the art of acting.
You can't help but appreciate all that goes into good acting as you watch Fontanne tutor a young Uta Hagen (a nicely self-assured Sara Griffin) in the use of makeup to reflect a character's evolution and then observe that same actress probe her character to uncover seemingly minor details that make a performance credible. Moreover, witnessing the painstaking attention to detail Lunt and Fontanne bring to the most casual rehearsal offers insight into a profession far more demanding than it appears.
Add Hatcher's sharp-edged, sweetly stinging, Noel Cowardesque dialogue to these eloquent, endlessly theatrical characters and you have the ingredients for an amusing backstage comedy. For the most part, "Ten Chimneys" delivers. In fact, it avoids the pitfalls that accompany larger-than-life characters like Fontanne and Lunt (played by V. Craig Heidenreich with graceful masculinity and fierce loyalty), who have a tendency to suck all the air out of the room.
That can be off-putting. So can the casual indifference the couple has cultivated as a result of their fame and privilege.
But it's their obvious expression of love -- deftly communicated by Mortensen and Heidenreich under Jones' deliberate, perceptive direction -- that make them so endearing and make this production worth seeing.
The play takes its name from Ten Chimneys, the Lunts' 60-acre estate in Genesee Depot, Wis., where the couple spent their summers entertaining fellow artists and rehearsing upcoming productions. Following their 1960 retirement, they made Ten Chimneys their permanent residence.
The action unfolds there in the years before and after World War II on Tom Burch's rustic, quaintly Midwestern set, complete with a wood plank rehearsal studio, red and white patio furniture and planter boxes filled with red geraniums.
The play centers around rehearsals for the Lunts' revival of Anton Chekhov's "The Seagull," and the burgeoning love triangle seemingly emerging between Fontanne, Lunt and the 19-year-old Hagen who plays Nina, the aspiring young actress in love with the writer Trigorin, played by Lunt.
For the record, "The Seagull" figures prominently in "Ten Chimneys," whose characters and complications parallel those of Chekhov's comedy. While those familiar with "Seagull" will get a kick out of Hatcher's references, it's not necessary to know the play to appreciate "Ten Chimneys." But it helps.
That said, Hatcher has a few subplots percolating that he doesn't fully develop, like the unseen male school chum who seems dearer to Alfred than Lynn prefers or the gambling that seemingly consumes Alfred's half-brother Carl (the drolly concise Lance Baker), although that could be a nod to Chekhov's "Three Sisters." Then there's the barely addressed tension between the globe-trotting Lunts and their country mouse relatives: Alfred's deliciously domineering mother Hattie (Linda Kimbrough, whose comic timing is sharp as ever) and his put-upon half-sister Louise (Janet Ulrich Brooks, an actress incapable of sounding a dishonest note). Lastly, Hatcher introduces actor Sidney Greenstreet (an amusing, poignant performance by Steve Pringle), a great friend of the Lunts who is grappling with a domestic tragedy of his own.
Frankly, any night at the theater that includes a supporting cast like this is a good night of theater. Surely, the Lunts would approve.