Ten Chimneys: A Little Neo-Chekhov for Wisconsin
Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull is a play in four acts, the last of which takes place some years after the first three. Jeffrey Hatcher’s Ten Chimneys (St. Clements) is a play in four scenes, the last of which takes place some years after the first three, in which several legendary American actors rehearse—oh, you’ll never guess—The Seagull. Chekhov’s characters famously make up an assemblage of unhappy love affairs and unfulfilled ambitions. You know what? The legendary actors and their ancillaries in Hatcher’s play make up a rat’s nest of unhappy love affairs and unfulfilled ambitions, just like (though not exactly like) the people in The Seagull. Amazing, isn’t it?
Well, no, it isn’t, actually. Hatcher has written himself into what the British used to call a cleft stick. If you don’t know The Seagull, you’re liable to find a great many of his insistent parallels to it pointless. If you do know it, the more knowledgeable you are, the more irritating the parallels are likely to get. The same applies to Hatcher’s chosen characters. Ten Chimneys, now a theater museum and artists’ resource center, was the Wisconsin estate of Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, the celebrated acting couple whose sophisticated tag-team style made the American stage glitter from the mid-1920s till their early '60s farewell performances in Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s The Visit. In 1938, for the Theatre Guild, the Lunts (as they were universally known) ventured for the first time into Chekhov with a production of—yes, that's right, the one about the stuffed bird. Lynn played Arkadina; Alfred played Trigorin. Sydney Greenstreet, later famous as the sinister fat man of 1940s film noir, played Arkadina’s brother, State Councillor Sorin, the fifth of his six appearances in their company.
The Nina of that production, a key figure in Ten Chimneys, was a young actress making her Broadway debut, a German-American gal from Wisconsin, barely out of her teens, who had just aroused a lot of interest by playing Ophelia to Eva le Gallienne’s Hamlet. And that little girl’s name, as they say in old theatrical anecdotes, was Uta Hagen.
On Hagen’s presence, Hatcher hangs his shadow-Chekhovian tale, inventing tenuous reasons for her to turn up unexpectedly at Ten Chimneys, and still more tenuous motivations for her to engage in elaborately triangulated psychological maneuverings with the Lunts. Gossip, you see, says that Alfred Lunt was secretly gay—very stale old news, and hardly something to make a fuss about at this late date. Hatcher embroiders on this by asserting that Fontanne, striving to keep her hubby on the straight path, encourages Hagen’s youthful presence as a genderically correct distraction. This barely holds water because, among other reasons, further gossip (which Hatcher doesn’t delve into) avers that Fontanne was a lesbian and the entire stylish marriage a carefully crafted illusion. Oh—and did you know that Sydney Greenstreet had a mentally troubled wife? Add Lunt’s meddling mother and his two differently troubled half-siblings, and voila, instant Chekhov! Just add pathos and stir.
Dan Wackerman’s production, despite an appealing set by Harry Feiner, unwisely tries to bolster Hatcher’s case by adding a consciously artificial “style” to some of the performances. Carolyn McCormick, as Fontanne, suffers most from this, though she handles it well at peak moments, and flickeringly invests it with touches of humor. Predictably, the ever-reliable Byron Jennings (McCormick’s real-life husband), playing Lunt, gives the evening’s solidest performance, making the imposed directorial flecks of “style” part of the character’s overall flaky indecisiveness. It tells you something of Jennings’s gifts that he can give flakiness a solid reality. Hatcher has allowed him and McCormick one excellent opportunity, which they seize with zest: a repeated rehearsal, getting faster each time through, of the wrenchingly emotional third-act scene between Arkadina and Trigorin. The lines, of course, come from The Seagull, but Hatcher deserves credit for the idea.
Beyond this, there’s little credit to allot, though Michael McCarty makes a plausible Greenstreet. Many people who knew and worked with Hagen are still around—enough of them for me to say they will find very little resembling her in either Hatcher’s script or Julia Bray’s performance. Incidentally, Hagen’s husband and lover, both mentioned but not named in the last scene of Ten Chimneys, were Jose Ferrer and Paul Robeson, both figures certainly known to the Lunts. And the director who shaped Hagen’s much-lauded 1951 performance as Shaw’s Saint Joan was the Masha of that 1938 Seagull, Margaret Webster, who goes wholly unmentioned in Hatcher’s play.
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