Mulgrew Captures Hepburn in 'Tea at Five'


AP Drama Critic

NEW YORK (AP)--Give Kate Mulgrew credit for tackling what could be the most impossible role on or off-Broadway this season _ impersonating screen legend Katharine Hepburn. Not only tackling it, but coming out just fine.

The evening is called ``Tea at Five,'' and Michael Lombardo's chatty play consists of two cozy tea-time conversations between Hepburn and an unseen audience in her family's Connecticut shore home, where, by the way, the actress still lives at age 95.

The play, at off-Broadway's Promenade Theatre, is not particularly deep or revealing, yet interest rarely flags, primarily because of the two Kates.

Mulgrew exudes a forceful yet appealing stage presence, but then she'd have to. She's up against the considerable movie persona of a woman who is only as far away as the nearest DVD player.

Act 1 takes place in 1938, a low point in Hepburn's career. After seven flop films in a row, she flees California and heads East, sits by the phone and waits to hear if she's won the role of Scarlett O'Hara in a little something called ``Gone with the Wind.''

She didn't, but it's breezy fun to watch Mulgrew, long, red hair blazing and sleekly dressed in a fashionable white pants suit, needle a Hollywood that didn't know what to do with a strong, intelligent woman. Hepburn's comments are tart and laced with more than a trace of bitterness.

Hepburn also reveals dribs and drabs of information about her family: her doctor-father, her activist-mother and her adored, older brother Tom.

An astonishing transformation occurs in the play's second half, which is set in 1983. By then Hepburn is suffering from Parkinson's disease. As Act 2 begins, Mulgrew is on stage with her back to the audience and when she turns around, you can hear the gasps. The performer, her hair now graying, truly channels Hepburn, right down to the tremors and even shakier New England twang.

But it's more than a physical change. Here Lombardo probes a bit beneath the fan-magazine gloss of Act 1 to find a surprisingly vulnerable woman. This section also contains the evening's most poignant and dramatic moment: the suicide of 15-year-old Tom and the effect it had on his younger sister who found the body.

The playwright also briefly gets into Hepburn's intense relationship with Spencer Tracy. ``I never got tired of watching him work, never,'' she says at one point. ``His talent was my weakness.'' But her comments never go beyond adoration.

John Tillinger has directed ``Tea at Five'' with the brisk authority one would expect from Hepburn herself. And Mulgrew is equally confident. Their efforts make you want to rush right home and watch Kate the Great in such classics as ``Bringing Up Baby'' or ``The African Queen'' or ``The Lion in Winter.''