Hartford Courant

New York Kisses For Mulgrew Less Enthusiasm For Play

March 11, 2003 

By FRANK RIZZO, Courant Staff Writer 

Critics loved Kate but were less enamored of "Kate," at the least the Kate Hepburn depicted on stage in Matthew Lombardo's "Tea at Five," which opened in New York Sunday.

The show made its way to off-Broadway's Promenade Theatre following popular runs in other cities, beginning with its premiere last spring at Hartford Stage.

Once again, Kate Mulgrew received praise for her performance in the one-person show based on the life of Katharine Hepburn, who at 95 and in frail health still lives in her family home in the Fenwick section of Old Saybrook.

The official response of the Hepburn family when the show made its debut in Hartford was to call it "trash," but critics were more kind to the work, which depicts Hepbrun at age 31 and at 76.

"Mulgrew yes; `Tea at Five' no," said Donald Lyons in the New York Post, writing that the play "is the latest instance of that essentially cheesy genre, the celeb looking back on life and career."

But Howard Kissel in the New York Daily News called the evening "sheer fun," as well as "well-designed and directed and splendidly acted."

Gordon Cox of Newsday says "Mulgrew's performance, strong as it is, sometimes isn't enough to carry playwright Matthew Lombardo's script, which is always affectionate but often graceless. `Tea at Five' falls into the traps common to a one-act stage biography. But it should still satisfy those theatergoers for whom this sort of thing is their cup of tea."

The New York Times - the most significant of New York reviews - did not weigh in for Monday's paper. It sometimes does not run reviews for off-Broadway shows the day after the opening.Christopher Isherwood, writing for Variety, referred to the "Tea" script as "an affectionate portrait ... a skillfully constructed and thoroughly workmanlike bio-drama." He called Mulgrew's performance "remarkable" and said it "infuses [the play] with crisp, appealing life, not to mention eerie verisimilitude."

William Stevenson, writing for the website Broadway.com, called it "an OK play." "While true Hepburn fans won't learn that much about the star that hasn't been printed in articles and books, they're bound to admire Mulgrew's impersonation."

David Finkle, writing for the Theatermania.com, wrote of Mulgrew's "spectacular performance." But he also complained of a tendency toward caricature. "There's a whiff of a drag act here. ... A strong and colorful woman is simultaneously celebrated and mocked."

With mixed reviews, the forecast for the production is uncertain. However, with plenty of favorable notices for Mulgrew and enough lift-out quotes for the production and the play, it might duplicate its success elsewhere. The show played to sold-out houses in Hartford, at the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, Mass., and at the Cleveland Play House, despite mixed reviews in those cities as well.

In reviewing the New York production, which has been rewritten since its Hartford run, The Courant's theater critic Malcolm Johnson said: "Seen a second time, the play itself comes across as an even thinner piece than initially seemed. ... Finally, there is no real point to this two-hour solo, other than the display of Mulgrew's uncanny transformations."