NEW YORK (AP) -- In "The Seagull," which Chekhov considered a comedy, the main themes are regret, artistic longing and ill-fated love, with tension and cruelty lurking beneath the surface.
Those Chekhovian layers of angst, featured in relationships among theater people visiting a country estate, are smartly paralleled in Jeffrey Hatcher's new comedy "Ten Chimneys." A charming, frothy off-Broadway production from The Peccadillo Theater Company opened Wednesday night at The Theatre at St. Clement's.
The prolific Hatcher, ("Never Gonna Dance" and "Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde" among others), takes plenty of liberties with reality here. He based his lively comedy on one fact: In August 1937, legendary American theatrical couple Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, (played with flair by Byron Jennings and Carolyn McCormick), rehearsed several scenes from "The Seagull" while summering with friends and family at their large country home, Ten Chimneys, in Genesee Depot, Wis.
Hatcher has filled his fictional story about that event with witty period humor, often achieving an air of glittering lightness reminiscent of Noel Coward (a real-life friend of the Lunt-Fontanne crowd.) Witticisms fly like darts, as Hatcher takes pains to ensure comedic parallels to Chekhov's play, but not too darkly. Director Dan Wackerman's skilled staging and unhurried pace let the plot unfold naturally, like its languid summer setting.
Lunt and Fontanne are portrayed with gentle mockery as charming, self-absorbed narcissists. McCormick makes grandiose gestures and finds melodrama in nearly every interaction. She easily inhabits her larger-than-life character, and her brittle, self-aware delivery renders her pointed banter deliciously acerbic. Jennings is debonair and slightly effete as Lunt, whose hushed-up secret adds another layer of intrigue.
Sidney Greenstreet (nicely portrayed by Michael McCarty) and a very young Uta Hagen (a serious yet sly Julia Bray) both visit Ten Chimneys to rehearse. Hagen made her real-life Broadway review with the Lunts in 1938, as Nina in "The Seagull." Hatcher's not-so-innocent Hagen soon creates a tense love triangle as she flirts with a delighted Lunt. But Fontanne sees through the ingenue's ploys, and McCormick masterfully conveys her no-longer-young character's realistic yet rueful feelings.
Lucy Martin is wildly funny as Hattie, Lunt's smothering prima donna of a mother. These fictional diva-in-laws continually and elegantly bicker. Referring to a pending rehearsal, Fontanne says archly, "Alfred, it's perfectly all right with me if your mother wants to watch. With Chekhov there's always a large, dark presence looming about."
Hattie's neglected daughter, unhappily married Louise, is played with seething truculence by Charlotte Booker. Lunt's step-brother Carl, who earns his living as a pool shark, is given a careless geniality by John Wernke. The period atmosphere is enhanced by some beautiful outfits designed by Sam Fleming, and the detailed, rotating set and sunny outdoor lighting are by Harry Feiner.
Romance or maternal jealousy are not these folks' biggest problems, as things darken in Act 2. The plot sags a bit when the action skips to post-war 1945 and Hagen has an anti-climactic face-off with Fontanne. But the final scene effectively circles back to the light-hearted, theatrical homage at the crux of this play-within-a-play.