Ten Chimneys premiered in 2011. But with its old-fashioned form and frothy narrative, it might as well have been produced in the 1930s.
That's not entirely a bad thing. Jeffrey Hatcher's comedy centers on Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, lauded as the greatest husband-and-wife team in the history of American theater. From the mid-'20s on, they starred opposite each other in dozens of plays, including many by that cheekiest of playwrights, Noel Coward. Ten Chimneys is set at—and derives its name from—the couple's rural Wisconsin retreat, where they kept a glamorous guest book. It picks up in 1938, with the couple hosting rehearsals for a production of Anton Chekhov's The Seagull. That means (deep breath) we have actors (the finely tuned Artists Rep cast) playing actors (Lunt, Fontanne and others) playing actors (Chekhov's melancholy characters). Add in the fact that The Seagull is also set at a country estate, and the meta-theatricality is head-spinning.
For non-buffs, it all might be a bit opaque, or even off-putting in its sometimes strained parallels with The Seagull. But for those willing to surrender to the play's self-aware nostalgia, it's an enjoyable and affectionate throwback to the likes of Coward and George S. Kaufman. As the Portland directorial debut of Artists Rep's incoming artistic director, Dámaso Rodriguez, it's a safe but well-oiled—and occasionally very funny—piece of theater.
Ten Chimneys unfolds as a series of informal rehearsals cut with gossipy dialogue and winking discussion of acting techniques. Joining Lunt (Michael Mendelson) and Fontanne (Linda Alper) are the portly Sydney Greenstreet (Todd Van Voris, amiably weathering fat jokes) and an 18-year-old Uta Hagen (Abby Wilde). Lunt and Fontanne were known for their rigorous discipline, and Hatcher examines the blurring of onstage theatrics with offstage drama. When Fontanne bursts in on her husband and the pretty ingenue rehearsing a kiss scene, Lunt insists, "It's only a play!" "Blasphemy!" Fontanne shrieks.
Hagen's presence stokes some tension—she's positioned as a slight threat to the middle-aged Fontanne, even as a subplot raises questions about Lunt's sexuality—but the play is much more a love letter than a slap. To that end, the show is best not when its characters are sulking or bellyaching, but when they're showcasing their craft or slinging one-liners ("the woman is a Vesuvius of mucus," Lunt quips). At one point, Lunt and Fontanne rehearse a scene repeatedly, each iteration gaining velocity and heat. They pace, they glare at each other, they stare at the audience, they circle each other like boxers in a ring. It's a treat to watch Alper, an Oregon Shakespeare veteran and a grande dame of the local theater scene, playing such a legendary character. She expertly channels both pride and vulnerability.
The others—those not rehearsing for The Seagull—stand by for scenery-chewing moments. As Lunt's queenly mother Hattie, JoAnn Johnson chomps into her role with relish, delivering lines from Chekhov as sensationally as cracks about burnt muffins. When she and Mendelson quibble, their noggins shake like those of bobblehead dolls. As Lunt's half sister, Sarah Lucht provides a delightfully acid-tongued antidote to all the fluff—in a moment of contained rage, she spouts how The Seagull is a stupid play about stupid people acting stupidly.
Ten Chimneys, on the other hand, is a mostly smart play about showy people acting in occasionally foolish ways, as Chekhov and Coward whisper to them from the wings.
SEE IT: Ten Chimneys is at Artists Repertory Theatre, 1515 SW Morrison St., 241-1278. 7:30 pm Wednesdays-Sundays, 2 pm Sundays through May 26. $25-$50.