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The artistic brilliance of a husband-and-wife acting team

The Fabulous Lunts, a biography of Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, by Jared Brown. Foreword by Helen Hayes. New York: Atheneum. 523 pp. $24.95. In 1929, J. B. Priestley reluctantly attended a London performance of ``Caprice,'' starring Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne. Expecting to be ``bored beyond belief by a trivial comedy of manners,'' Priestley soon found that he had ``fallen under the spell of its leading players . . . the fabulous Lunts.''

Not surprisingly, the Lunts have inspired Jared Brown to write a vivid, comprehensive, meticulously documented chronicle of America's greatest husband-and-wife acting team. The book abounds in admiring evaluations by critics and the fellow theater people who worked with the Lunts. There are a wealth of anecdotes and some 30 illustrations.

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By the time they appeared in ``Caprice,'' the Lunts had already acted together, notably in Shaw's ``Arms and the Man'' and Molnar's ``The Guardsman.'' In the most significant decision of their joint careers, they notified the Theatre Guild that they would thereafter perform only in plays that provided balanced parts for both of them.

From childhood, English-born Lynn Fontanne and American Alfred Lunt knew that they wanted to be actors. Fontanne's grounding came as a teen-ager when she was accepted as a pupil by Ellen Terry. As a Midwestern youngster, Milwaukeean Lunt produced his own plays and acted all the parts. His initiation into the disciplines of the theater occurred under the guidance of May Rankin, an inspiring director and teacher at Carroll Academy and College in Waukesha, Wis.

In 1905, Fontanne made her deliriously happy debut in the chorus of ``Cinderella,'' at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. In 1912, while casually attending Emerson College in Boston, Lunt was hired by the Castle Square Theatre where the youngster played many an oldster. Their respective breakthroughs to Broadway stardom occurred for Lunt in Booth Tarkington's ``Clarence'' (1919), and for Fontanne in ``Dulcy'' (1921), George F. Kaufman and Marc Connelly's first success. Meanwhile, they had met and fallen in love and would be married in 1922 at New York's City Hall.

``The Fabulous Lunts'' deals extensively with such matters as their meticulous working methods and techniques; their often stormy relations with the Theatre Guild (whose managers' previews were known as ``the death watch''); and the touring which made them recognized national as well as Broadway stars. Professor Brown details their contributions -- on and offstage -- to the war effort, including their British residency from 1944-45. As leaders of their profession, they were able to develop an acting company of their own but never realized their dream of establishing a permanent repertory troupe.

Challenging the criticism that the Lunts chose to appear in trivia, Brown notes that, separately or together, they acted Shakespeare, Shaw, Chekhov, Werfel, O'Neill, Coward, Sherwood, Behrman, Giraudoux, and Anderson, to name a few. They tended (from 1945-1957) to opt for vehicles like ``Quadrille'' and ``The Great Sebastians,'' ``largely because they felt they could persuade the playwrights, who were personal friends, to alter the material to suit their requirements.'' That artistic detour, if such it was, ended in 1958 with their triumphant return to serious drama in Duerrenmatt's mordant ``The Visit.'' It was their stage valedictory.

To those who knew and worked with them, the Lunts were not merely fabulous. They were affectionately esteemed mentors. In her preface, fellow star Helen Hayes writes: ``Their qualities as generous, compassionate human beings, as well as their artistic brilliance, won them the undying admiration of nearly all who knew them.''

John Beaufort covers New York theater for the Monitor.

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