Massive theater geek that I am, no one had to tell me twice to attend Arizona Theatre Company's newly commissioned unknown quantity, Ten Chimneys, once I'd learned it's about Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, the renowned golden couple of the 20th-century stage, retreating to their summer place in Wisconsin to rehearse Chekhov's The Seagull with Uta Hagen and Sydney Greenstreet. (The title should have tipped me off -- it's the name of the house -- but I'm not quite that big a geek.)
For you normal people who have lives, I'll delve into what makes the show inherently complex and interesting -- though if you have a decade or two on me, the way much of Sunday's matinee crowd appeared to, you may have been fortunate enough to see the Lunts in Toledo and already have sufficient reason to appreciate this basically fact-based peek into their offstage adventures.
I don't really approve of art you have to study ahead of time to get anything out of, and neither does Ten Chimneys author Jeffrey Hatcher -- although he shares that view, somewhat ironically, in a guide to the show that ATC suggests people might want to, you know, read ahead of time. But one of the cool things about this play is that you can approach and appreciate it either way.
Without suggesting that we're idiots, the parallels between the plot and characters of The Seagull (which, if you wish, you can read right here -- it won't spoil anything, and it might help) and those of Ten Chimneys are pointed out and spotlighted from time to time to emphasize components such as family, art, love, jealousy, and the conflicts they inspire.
Characters are also constantly telling each other stories about one another, which might sound like heavy-handed exposition, but Hatcher is skillful enough to make it seem quite natural. It helps that these are show-biz folk who love to gossip and make scenes.
So we've got bigger-than-life stars, dashingly portrayed by a group of actors who take us back to 1938 in every detail of mannerism, dress (breathtaking, by Marcia Dixcy Jory), and setting (phenomenal, by John Ezell), aiming for maximum realism, just as Lunt and Fontanne did in an evolving dramatic movement that was barely breaking out of overblown histrionics, spectacle, and glamour. Nothing pierces the self-contained world of the play -- there are no clinkers in this batch, and the audience's journey is made diverting and introspective by turns.
It's also super-funny at regular intervals, almost as though the acerbic wit the Lunts delivered in their collaborations with Noel Coward were imposed on a sitcom plot about not expecting the boss for dinner, resulting in a farcical Carol Burnett Show Norma Desmond sketch, had it been written by Carrie Fisher and performed by people who can keep a straight face. (Or the sort of comedy that people insist is inherent in Chekhov, if you rehearse for six months and aren't afraid to make a fool of yourself.)
In the final scene of Ten Chimneys, several years have passed since the original summer -- just like in The Seagull! -- but what has happened in between, among other things, is World War II. Things that seemed of desperate importance before are water under the bridge. It's always encouraging to see characters grow and learn, but demonstrating that evolution in flamboyant characters with huge egos is tricky. Hatcher, director David Ira Goldstein, and company pull it off, though, making for a play that lingers like fortifying soup shared by friends, rather than the reflux-inducing pizza in an antacid commercial.
Ten Chimneys continues through Sunday, March 6, at Herberger Theater Center, 222 East Monroe Street. For tickets, $35 to $64, click here or call 602-256-6995. Ask about the pre- and post-show discussions offered at some of the performances -- they're fascinating.