When Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne were not reigning supreme on the Broadway stages of the 1930s and 1940s, they were reposing at Ten Chimneys, their summer house in Genesee Depot, Wisc. The Midwestern location — as distinct from the usual celebrity spread in the Hamptons or the villa on the Cote d'Azur — was highly unusual and a consequence of Lunt's Wisconsin roots. But as anyone who has visited this well-preserved house (it is open to the public every summer) can tell you, the Lunts had the kind of clout that brought Broadway and the West End to them: The likes of Noel Coward, Helen Hayes and Laurence Olivier all stumbled their way to Waukesha County, where the Lunts' 60-acre estate hosted soirees, retreats and even al fresco rehearsals of coming Broadway attractions.
Jeffrey Hatcher's new play is named after the house, which functions in many ways as its central character. But you get the sense that Hatcher and BJ Jones, the director of the Northlight Theatre production, have not fully figured out what they want this show to be. Some of the time, it's a frothy, personality-driven comedy, evoking shades of Coward's "Hay Fever" or George S. Kaufmanand Edna Ferber's "The Royal Family." At others, it's a gossipy affair, using sexy double-entendres (something about sharing salmon croquettes) to probe the amorous attentions paid to Lund by one Uta Hagen, an ambitious young actress who knew how to get ahead when doing Chekhov with a man whose wife may (or may not) have been OK with a love triangle. Assuming it helped the scene.
And then there's a deeper, more Chekhovian intent to probe the marriage of the Lunts themselves, according to the thesis that they lived and loved life in a kind of alternate reality, where onstage drama was their version of normalcy and offstage reality was endlessly theatrical. That last idea is the most interesting, although it does not need stating as directly in the last minutes of the play ("whenever we are talking about theater," Fontanne observes, "we are talking about love"), and it would need a much more credible world than the one Hatcher and Jones paint here. One other underexplored theme is the collision of the Lunts, and the myopic, high-end showbiz world, with the land on which Ten Chimneys stood.
It's hard to follow so many stylistic dictates at once: It feels here as if everyone started out wanting to do the kind of slight, boosterish show they might stage at, well, Ten Chimneys itself, and that would burnish the myth of the Lunts, and then decided that everything needed a more substantial tone. Neither one feels fully sustained; that desired Chekhovian edge would need a lot more bite.
Yet we lurch back and forth. Tom Burch's strangely scaled set suggests an almost cartoonish Wisconsin world, and Janet Ulrich Brooks, who plays Louise (Lunt's caustic half-sister and reluctant servant), is tasked mostly with delivering passive-aggressive banter, just as Linda Kimbrough, who plays Lunt's mother, Hattie, delivers the kind of matriarchal one-liners we associate with Lady Bracknell. Into this broad landscape enters the promising young actress Sara Griffin, who plays Hagen and who imbues her young woman's machinations and manipulations with an overtly prosaic and realistic tone. It's all a bit of a jumble.
Not all the casting really works — V Craig Heidenreich has some arresting and laudably vulnerable moments at Lunt, but you don't ever feel the high-wattage presence of a huge star. Lia Mortensen, who plays Fontanne, is an intensely honest actress, which always serves her well in the right role. But she struggles with the duality of Fontanne — she has the insecurity and intelligence down pat, but it feels as if she can't quite commit to the artifice that made up much of Fontanne's life (at Ten Chimneys as much as anywhere else) even though Fontanne was as peerless in obfuscation as she was in revelation.
The Lunts were, of course, fascinating people, and there is much of historical and human interest in the play — which also features a brooding Lance Baker as Carl and an amusing Steve Pringle as Sydney Greenstreet. With more work, it could be something good. But Saturday afternoon, it felt as if the ever-loyal Northlight audience was leaning into the play, intrigued by the setting and the rich personalities, but struggling to figure out what it wanted to say about these bygone theatrical folks, summering in the Dairy State but importing all their own entertainment.
When: Through April 15
Where: Northlight Theatre, 9501 Skokie Blvd.
Running time: 2 hours