Actors love playing actors, since it is world of artifice they know all too well. Trouble is, there aren’t many plays outside of Coward of Chekhov that provide both the opportunity to have fun with the thespian mindset while still offering deeper insights.
Happily, that is exactly the package that is delivered, in spades, in Ten Chimneys by Jeffrey Hatcher, now at the Cleveland Play House. Channeling both of the aforementioned playwrights, Hatcher strafes the stage with witty patter while constructing some complex and multifaceted characters.
The result, thanks to a splendid cast and pitch-perfect direction by CPH artistic director Michael Bloom, is a production that is deeply satisfying in many levels. Spanning the years immediately before and after World War II, this show feels spot on.
The actors being portrayed are Alfred Lunt and his wife Lynn Fontanne, the king and queen of mid-20th century theater. They are in residence at their summer digs in Wisconsin, called Ten Chimneys, and have invited the famed Sydney Greenstreet and a teenaged Uta Hagen to visit them.
The purpose of the get-together is to get a head start on their upcoming production of The Seagull, but this is no placid rehearsal process. Echoing the complications of that Chekhov play, a triangle develops among Lunt, Fontanne and Hagen. Meanwhile further ripples are created by Alfred’s sharp-tongued mother Hattie, his half-sister and part-time de facto servant Louise, and his half-brother Carl (Jeremy Kendall).
As Lunt and Fontanne, Donald Carrier and Jordan Baker are a joy to behold. Carrier balances Lunt’s mommy fixation deftly with his casually scathing bon mots. And Baker is both regal and devastatingly withering. When Lunt follows after his mother at one point, she murmurs, “Has anyone seen my copy of Oedipus?”
Carrier and Baker are particularly fine when batting lines from The Seagull back and forth, often at high speed, as they try to find their characters and their beats. This is done even as they try to do the same thing in their real life.
As good as they are, Mariette Hartley almost steals the show as Hattie, displaying nanosecond timing and imbuing this stereotypical overbearing mother-in-law from hell with a fresh sense of maternal martyrdom. Also excellent is Gail Rastorfer as frumpy, put-upon Louise.
Michael McCarty carries the heft of Greenstreet well and evolves into something unexpected and quite touching when a side story about his wife is revealed. Playing Hagen, Kelli Ruttle does nicely in conveying the young woman’s insecurity in the presence of these iconic actors. But she doesn’t quite manage to show why Lunt would be attracted to her, which undercuts the budding love triangle.
Even with a dead spot in the second act, when Fontanne and Hagen find themselves in a meandering conversational cul-de-sac, the pacing director Bloom establishes is beautifully suited to the script, the characters and the time. And the costuming by David Kay Mickelsen is detailed down to the last nit, including Louise’s sadly wrinkled stockings.
An additional pleasure is the venue itself, since this is the first play in CPH’s new Second Stage theater. This flexible space is arranged in arena seating for this production, with the audience walking down the steeply raked seats to find their place. Once seated, every audience member has a clean, close and unobstructed perch.
From every perspective, Ten Chimneys is a must-see, and one more positive sign that the Cleveland Play House is on a serious roll in their new and glorious home at PlayhouseSquare.
Through February 5, at the Cleveland Play House, PlayhouseSquare,1407 Euclid Avenue, 216-241-6000.