Passing the torch: Signals from ‘Ten Chimneys’

Damaso Rodriguez makes a Chekhovian comedy about theatrical legends his first show for Artists Rep. What's it mean for the company's transition?

Alper, Mendelson, Wilde: menage a teatre. Photo: Owen Carey

Alper, Mendelson, Wilde: menage a teatre. Photo: Owen Carey

One of the sweetest and most revealing moments in Jeffrey Hatcher’s rueful 2011 comedy “Ten Chimneys” at Artists Repertory Theatre comes when Abby Wilde, playing a very young Uta Hagen, tells Linda Alper, as the reigning stage royalty Lynn Fontanne, that her character’s face should be naked, with no makeup at all. Well then, Alper says, deftly pulling items from her makeup kit and smacking them down on the table, if you want to make it look like you’re not wearing any makeup you’ll need this … and this … and this.

As Fontanne deeply understands and Hagen is beginning to learn, in the theater even raw honesty is a façade. The two women are rivals of a sort, at least in Fontanne’s mind, but above all they’re conspirators in that magnificent little life-trick known as the theater. Hagen eventually will supplant Fontanne, because that’s what the young do to the old. But it is both an honor and a duty for one generation to pass on the tricks of the trade to the next, and for the new generation to accept with gratitude the gift that it receives. One of the theater’s great beauties is that, in spite of everything – ambition, jealousy, vanity, sheer cussedness – collaboration outweighs competition.

It would be taking things vastly too far to say that Fontanne and her husband/partner Alfred Lunt represent Allen Nause in “Ten Chimneys” and Hagen represents Damaso Rodriguez. But the temptation’s clear. After 25 years as Artists Rep’s artistic director, Nause is retiring and the younger Rodriguez is taking the reins. And Hatcher’s comedy is very much about another passing of the torch – this one from the champagne-and-evening-dress sophistication that Lunt and Fontanne embodied on Broadway to the earthier, more psychologically probing sort of modern theater that Hagen espoused.

The analogy fails partly because Nause has done plenty of deep wrestling in the psychological trenches, as his recent ferocious turn onstage opposite Vana O’Brien in “The Gin Game” attests, and partly because we don’t really know yet how radically Rodriguez, who comes to Portland after leadership stints at Furious Theatre and the Pasadena Playhouse in Southern California, will shift the company’s direction. He doesn’t officially take over until after the current season ends, and “Ten Chimneys” is the first show he’s directed for Artists Rep. But his choice of this play, about theater people and their mixed-up obsessions, suggests a belief that while styles may seem radically at odds, beneath the surface it’s all theater. In his program notes, Rodriguez tellingly quotes one line from the play: “Whenever we talk about the theater, we’re talking about love.”

“Ten Chimneys” takes its title from Lunt’s gentleman’s farm in Wisconsin, a property known, like Fallingwater or Downton Abbey, not by a number but a name. Alfred (Michael Mendelson) and Lynn spend two or three months a year there, in the summer, and his mother, Hattie (an imperiously dotty JoAnn Johnson, who in the final scene slides from eccentricity into dotage) lives there year-round, along with Alfred’s pool-hustling half-brother Carl (Chris Harder) and, although technically she has a husband and a house on a nearby farm, his half-sister Louise (Sarah Lucht), who is bafflingly treated more like a servant than a sibling.

On the occasion of the play, it is August of 1938 (a coda re-gathers the tribe in 1945) and the Lunts are assembling the cast for a new production of Chekhov’s “The Seagull,” a play that’s really more up Hagen’s alley than the Lunts’. Besides Hagen, who shows up unexpectedly a few days early, the Lunts’ New York sidekick Sydney Greenstreet (Todd Van Voris) is on hand, gasping and wheezing and fretting about his wife, who’s been living for several years in a nearby mental hospital.

They might as well be gathered in a late 19th century Russian dacha. Hatcher makes frequent allusions, subtly and overtly, to the characters and situations of “The Seagull,” and separating reality from fantasy becomes a matter of peeling onions: beneath each layer lies another that seems very much the same. Lynn and Hattie snipe endlessly at each other. Louise throws temper tantrums and decorative china. Carl holes up in a bed loft and eavesdrops on everything. Alfred and Uta lock lips in a long, soulful kiss that might be simply part of rehearsal and might be something else, and in this atmosphere who can tell if there’s a paper’s width of a difference?

I very much like the casting of this show, not just for the talent level but also for the weight and tone of the performances, which are calibrated for a dynamic and constantly shifting balance. Mendelson and Alper are marvelous together, all crackling surface until the surface cracks, held together by a love of gamesmanship that makes all of life a performance: one of the show’s pleasures is watching them rehearse short scenes over and over, shifting their approach each time, trying on the multitudes of possible variations on the theme. Wilde, the sole non-Portlander in the cast (she’s worked extensively in California) brings a deep presence that somehow suggests both the 18-year-old Hagen’s naivety and the formidable intelligence and determination that would distinguish her career: even in awe, her Uta is unafraid to challenge Lunt and Fontanne over matters of the theater.

I wish Hatcher’s script provided a better balance for what is, after all, a small ensemble. Lucht, a very good performer, is given little to do but act put-upon (which, in fact, her character is, but is there nothing more to Louise than that?). Harder is almost invisible through most of the play, then comes out of nowhere to nail a crucial passage in the final scene. Van Voris has some lovely and insightful moments as the supposedly carefree Greenstreet – entering with forced cheer in an overweight and out-of-shape sweat; more profoundly, reaching desperately for a heart pill, and scrambling on the floor after spilling the bottle, as he faces the lonely shape of his mortality. But without better integration they amount to splendid cameos. And the play’s 1945 coda – whoops, here’s Uta, back on the Lunt doorstep under the flimsiest of excuses after all these years – has all the internal logic of a deus ex machina. It’s true that Chekhov’s exceptionally caste-conscious play includes its share of minor and walk-on roles. But “Ten Chimneys” isn’t “The Seagull.” It’s a contemporary play about a pivotal period in American theatrical history that makes its own references to a Russian masterpiece from 1895, and it would be nice, considering its looping circles of time, if it either paid more attention to contemporary ensemble ideas or threw them utterly out the window and let the thing be a gloriously sprawling mess. As it stands, it just seems not to quite fit together.

That said, there’s plenty of laughter here, and not all of it of the Lunt/Fontanne/Noel Coward variety but some of the nervous, edgy, Hagen kind. The performances, if not the script itself, are beautifully balanced, and Rodriquez looks to be a director who knows how to bring out the best in actors. The production has a generous, celebratory feel: not a home run but a solid double, with the promise of more hits to come.

NOTES:

  • “Ten Chimneys” continues through May 26 at ArtistsRep. Ticket and schedule information here.
  • Aaron Scott, Portland Monthly’s Culturephile columnist, gives the show a rave. Read it here.
  • The Oregonian’s Marty Hughley also likes “Ten Chimneys” very much. Read his review here.
  • Broadway World’s Patrick Brassell likes the production better than the play. Read his review here.
  • Rebecca Jacobson gives a nuanced review for Willamette Week. Read it here.
  • The Mercury’s Alison Hallet calls the show “very much a for-theater-fans only affair.” Read her review here.

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