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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
You won't find the legendary acting couple in residence (The Wisconsin born Lunt died in 1977 at age 84), British born Fontanne in 1983 at age 96) but Jeffrey Hatcher's backstage drama, smoothly directed by Dan Wackerman, has the excellent, very much alive, Byron Jennings and Carolyn McCormick stand in for the famous duo.
Hatcher depicts the Lunts at the top of their game. It's August 1937 Alfred and Lynn's time to relax, swim in their pool and putter around the then still unnamed ample grounds. With the Fall season right around the corner, it's also time to rehearse their company's next play, Chekhov's The Seagull. While notable friends and colleagues like Noèl Coward and Katharine Hepburn and Helen Hayes were frequent visitors they appear only as names dropped into the dialogue. But the plans for the Chekhov play do bring one of their celebrity friends, Sydney Greenstreet (Michael McCarty), to the stage. In 1937, the rotund actor who did heed the siren song of Hollywood — ost famously in The Maltese Falcon and Casablanca — was still a member of their company. He thus shows up to rehearse the role of Counselor Sorin and also visit his mentally ill wife in a nearby nursing home.
A character still young and unknown to Alfred and Lynn, but eventually as famous as they, is Uta Hagen (Julia Bray). She's to be The Seagull's doomed young Nina and her arrival in Wisconsin enables Hatcher to hatch a link between the biographical peek into the world of two superstars from a by-gone era with the characters and plot of Chekhov's play. Watching Alfred as the amorous writer Trigorin to the vulnerable Nina it's no stretch to see this as a bit of life imitating art. Lynn's moderately explosive jealous fireworks have nothing to do with any romantic shenanigans between Alfred and Uta, but with the reappearance of a male friend from his youth. That hint about his sexual preference is just part of the deeper psychological underpinnings of their relationship which endured less because of anything sexual but their shared passion for the theater.
As in Chekhov, nothing much happens. A few revelations come and go. Like Chekhov's family, Alfred's possessive mother Hattie ( Lucy Martin), the gambling half brother and chauffeur Carl (John Wernke) and half sister Louise (Charlotte Booker) introduce the more everyday skirmishes found in all families. Nothing really develops into long lasting high drama. As Alfred at one point tells his mother "We need less drama in our lives."
The most interesting and entertaining part of this eavesdropping two hours with the Lunts is a Seagull rehearsal scene that illustrates their technique for fine tuning their performances. Greenstreet is present as director/prompter and when he stops them to suggest a different take, they don't just redo that part, but go all the way back though each re-take is done at an speedier pace. to repeat.
Naturally, a small company like Peccadillo doesn't have the resources for a starry, elaborately staged production as Manhattan Theater Club' did in 2009 when it revived George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber's with The Royal Family, about the Barrymores. That said, Harry Feiner's turntable set creates a nice feel for the terrace and pool area and the studio used for rehearsals. Byron Jennings is an aptly suave Alfred. Carolyn McCormick's Lynn is an all glittery, glamorous diva (Take a bow, costumer Sam Fleming).
The standout among the other actors is Michael McCarty as Sydney Greenstreet, who also happens to be the play's most likeable and truly engaging character. The scene which reunites the main characters in the Ten Chimney studio in 1945 feels sort of tacked on, but it does sum up all loose ends. A line by Bray's Uta Hagen in that coda clarifies her aborted run in The Seagull and underscores what Jennings and McCormick's interaction conveys all along: "When you’re on stage together you belong to each other. Completely. When we were started The Sea Gull I thought 'Here is the stage.And there is real life.' Separate. But that’s not how it is for you. For you, the stage is real and the rest is just waiting to come on."
Except for one film, The Guardsman, Lunt and Fontanne' remained admirably true to their single-minded devotion to live theater. This does, however, leave one wishing that they'd seen film work as a means for letting future generations of theater goers see them at work instead of being characters in pleasant plays like Ten Chimneys and the name on a Broadway theater marquee.
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