Fringe Review: Lunt and Fontanne

The Lunt-Fontanne Theater on Broadway is named after Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, renowned partners on stage in more than two dozen productions and married to one another for 55 years.

LuntFontannetheaterMark E. Lang, the playwright of “Lunt and Fontanne: The Celestials of Broadway,” has had his own theatrical partnership with his wife Alison Murphy since they met doing regional theater in Cape May, New Jersey in 2001. “We joked that we were becoming the Lunt and Fontanne of South Jersey,” Lang writes in a program note.

Now they are the Lunt and Fontanne of the East Village, portraying the couple as part of the New York International Fringe festival

The real Lunt and Fontanne
The real Lunt and Fontanne

Their premise is that Lunt and Fontanne were the most celebrated husband-and-wife team in the history of American theater, but they are largely forgotten now, because the Lunts refused to augment their stage career with one in Hollywood. They appeared in just one film together, the 1931 adaptation of The Guardsman, a comedy that itself focuses on a husband-and-wife acting team, and that the Lunts had performed together to acclaim on Broadway seven years earlier. Both Lunt and Fontanne were nominated for Academy Awards for their performances in the film, but they turned down all subsequent movie offers, including a lucrative multi-picture deal. Their home was on stage.

“Lunt and Fontanne” is strongest when we see the current acting couple bravely undertake scenes from some of the Lunt’s favorite productions including The Guardsman and the Taming of the Shrew.

Murphy and Lang also impersonate a cast of characters with whom the Lunts came into contact, including their good friend Noel Coward, who wrote “Design for Living” for them, as well as Laurence Olivier, and, most memorably, Marlon Brando, muttering through an audition for the Lunts, who were also directors and producers.  That Brando became the new face of acting in America was a sign of changed tastes, and, as Lang would have it, marked the virtual end of the Lunts’ long reign. We see him fretting over not even being considered for the role of Willie Loman in Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman.”

The Lunts seem a natural subject for a stage play, and it’s a disappointment that too many of the 105 minutes of Lang’s play are taken up with a kind of clunky chronology, including an occasional cheery/cheesy direct address to the audience. After we see them getting married – with Lunt borrowing a dollar from an audience member to pay the fee to the Justice of the Peace – Fontanne turns to the audience and says: “On that fateful day, our lives changed forever.”

How, one wonders, would the Lunts react? “Acting,” Alfred Lunt said, in his best-known quote, “is the art of speaking in a loud, clear voice and the avoidance of bumping into the furniture.”

Lunt and Fontanne: The Celestials of Broadway

MainStage 64 East 4th Street

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Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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