An informative, but not particularly effervescent account of one of theater’s legendary acting couples.
By Joel Benjamin
Even though there are few people alive who have actually seen Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne perform, they still are legendary giants of the early twentieth century stage world. They made just one terrible, ridiculously overacted, film of Molnar’s The Guardsman, one of the rare chances to study them. Even so, the tales of their elegance and eloquence are legion, told and retold in theater history books.
Mark E. Lang has written a biographical, two-hand celebration of Lunt and Fontanne called The Celestials of Broadway, currently on view during the New York International Fringe Festival 2016. The era of the grand actors is long over and it is difficult to create these two in particular without seeming exaggerated or unreal, a major problem that neither Mr. Lang as Alfred Lunt nor his co-star Alison Murphy as Lynn Fontanne—both more than competent artists—were able to overcome. Where it should have effervesced, it bogged down in a smoothly staged series of biographical skits.
Their attempts at embodying these stars were hindered by poor direction by Owen Thompson who had them over acting, spouting their lines as if continuously inhabiting an S.N. Behrman drawing room comedy, even when they were alone together when they probably spoke like real people, albeit with pear-shaped tones.
Also, the costume designs of Viviane Galloway and Jessa-Raye Court, even taking financial concerns into consideration, did neither actor—but Ms. Murphy, in particular—no favors. Her basic outfit—a too-tight dark skirt and a shapeless white blouse—were poorly tailored and colorless. Ms. Fontanne always looked elegant, even in snaps of her lolling about their famed Ten Chimneys in Genesee Depot, Wisconsin.
The set—no designer credited—made the tiny stage look like a very busy theater dressing room with elegant chairs and racks of costumes used to help the two actors create not only the theatrical characters they played, but the famous people who populated their life.
Lunt and Fontanne: The Celestials of Broadway opens in 1958 as the anxious couple discuss the opening night of The Visit by Durrenmatt (later the basis for the Kander and Ebb musical of the same name). They are worried that this departure from their lighter fare will alienate their audiences, leading them down memory lane, a journey which touches on their meeting in the early 1920s, courting, their eventual marriage and going on to fame in plays by Shakespeare, Noël Coward, Behrman, and others. Their acting partners included Coward, Olivier and a very young Montgomery Clift. At one point, quite funny actually, they audition Marlon Brando—acted quite broadly by Mr. Lang—and go into a gentle tirade against the Method and even Tennessee Williams’ works. They do, however, like Arthur Miller. It turns out that Mr. Lunt actually auditioned for Death of a Salesman, losing the part, as we all know, to Lee J. Cobb.
They believed, probably correctly, that the characters Fred and Lily in Kiss Me Kate, the Porter/Spewak hit musical were not very kind jabs at their reputations.
They only real drama generated concerns Miss Fontanne’s insistence that they go to bomb-plagued London during World War Two to perform in Robert Sherwood’s Idiot’s Delight which drolly expressed anti-war sentiments. Mr. Lunt prevaricates, leading to the only blood and guts acting on the very long, intermissionless comedy/drama.
The ending was far too misty-eyed and sentimental, unsupported by the coolness of the rest of the play, but it was one of the few times their brittle facades were abandoned.
Lunt and Fontanne – The Celestials of Broadway (August 13, 17, 20, 23, 27, 2016)
New York International Fringe Festival
Venue #11 – 64 East 4th Street, Mainstage, between the Bowery and 2nd Avenue New York, NY
Photos by Siggi Ragnar