Ten Chimneys Again

Another Look at the Rep’s Ten Chimneys

Sep. 11, 2011
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The Milwaukee Rep has opened its season with the Midwest premiere of a Jeffrey Hatcher comedy. It’s a real pleasure to see something this new by a playwright as talented as Hatcher, even if the work is far from Hatcher’s best . . . even if it’s largely bereft of those personalities that Rep audiences have come to love over the years.  There are some welcome new faces here that give one the sense of a company that is continuing to evolve beyond where it has been pretty dramatically even as its debut show is directed by Joseph Hanreddy—a man who had been Artistic Director of the Rep for so many years.

As mentioned numerous other places, it’s story following stage legends like Alfred Lunt and Lynne Fontanne in rehearsal with Uta Hagen and Sydney Greenstreet is fun. Hatcher is clearly having fun with actors playing actors working on a play that happens to include a few actors in it. There are a few frightfully clever bits in here . . . Lunt and his mother are ensconced in some sort of argument blown way out of proportion be dramatic personalities having something of a row in private when Lunt bursts out with “let’s not have a scene!” There's another moment at the beginning of the play when Grant Goodman enters as Alfred Lunt wearing a hat. There's a long, drawn-out conversation about the wearing of hats onstage in plays that ties in quite cleverly with the action onstage. Of course, as characters in a play, they are having a scene, which is the type of thing that never quite manages to get tiring throughout the course of the play.

For the most part, the overall flow of action from one moment to the next is quite cleverly crafted and quite well orchestrated by Hanreddy. . . the big issue I have with how it’s executed has to do with some of Hatcher’s weaker, more obvious comic moments. The play’s subtler, more interesting bits of comedy are accompanied by jokes, particularly at the outside that feel very uncharacteristically sitcom-like for Hatcher. As things roll along, it feels a bit odd. It all moves so slowly. I don’t know if this was something Hanreddy consciously decided, but all if the simpler comedy would feel much more briskly comic if it were executed in more of a rapid-fire way. These are towering legends of theatre and it’d be fun to watch them casually speed through witty repartee. Instead, what we get are uncomfortably long pauses between punch lines. I half expected to hear a laugh track rolling through some of those pauses.

Those types of pauses can illicit strange behavior in an audience. I was  talking to a director after an interview at one point. . . he’d mentioned going to see a show at the American Player’s Theatre and commented on how . . . the audience there can sometimes make one wince with the style of the laughter. It’s all well and good to laugh when something is genuinely funny, but it’s kind of uncomfortable to hear someone force a laugh just to express an understanding of the humor. I felt that during this past Friday night’s performance during an uncharacteristically poor bit of Hatcher comedy involving an Oedipus reference near the beginning of the play. There's was that uncomfortable broadcast of fake laughter from a gentleman a few rows behind me. And who can blame him? The pacing of things in the first hour or so of the play have difficulty finding a pleasant rhythm. 

Hatcher also takes a few comic jabs at Wisconsin as well . . . which is all well and good, but those types of jokes have gotten pretty old for those of us who have lived here for more than a couple of decades.

Of course, treating the opening bits like breezy fast-paced comedy would compromise the emotional integrity of the characters—and there is a great deal of depth to the characters here, but perhaps the production would have served from more of a contrast between the beginning and the end. As the play starts, we’d get exactly what we’d expect from a fast-paced comedic show about theatrical legends . . . and then as things get more serious after intermission, things slow down and we begin to peer beyond the superficial slickness of the characters to find something altogether more interesting.

Flaws aside, there are some really good performances here—particularly in a pair of Chicago actresses making their Rep debuts—Wendi Weber is charming as Lynn Fontanne. There’s that superficial melodramatic actress portrayal, but there’s a depth beyond that that ends up being a great deal of fun to watch.  Easily the single funnest character here is a young Uta Hagen, played here by Leah Karpel. Part of the charm here is the juxtaposition. Hagen is a well-respected stage legend. (I remember an acting class that used her Respect For Acting as one of its only textbooks.) Seeing her as young, inexperienced girl of 18 is an interesting contrast to the image of her as a legend. Beyond the basic elements of the situation, Karpel is really charming as an 18-year-old actress doing some of her first professional work with the great stage legends of the prevous generation.

The Milwaukee Rep’s production of Ten Chimneys runs through September 25th at the Quadracci Powerhouse Theatre


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