`Tea at Five,' heated up, returns for run at Belding 

Hartford Courant

By Frank Rizzo

Courant Staff Writer

November 18, 2004

There's a duality to Katharine Hepburn that made her a great actress, an American icon and a natural subject for biographers, cinephiles and - in the case of "Tea at Five" - a playwright and actress.

There's the Yankee independence, strength and resiliency that Hepburn, who died last year at 96, nurtured during her long and successful career. But scratch the iron maiden, and one can catch glimpses of fragility, desperation and insecurity, qualities that made her more than just a tough cookie.

There's a duality to "Tea at Five" as well, Matthew Lombardo's one-person stage show about the actress, starring Kate Mulgrew. It returns to Hartford after receiving its premiere in 2002 at Hartford Stage. It is a straightforward, by-the-numbers biography of the actress, chronicling her career highs and lows and retelling some familiar and some obscure anecdotes.

But it also attempts to parse her knotted psychology: her reaction to the suicide of her brother; her conflicted feelings about her father; her needy relationship with Spencer Tracy. Much of this is tenuous, fleeting and obvious but gives Mulgrew a handle to approach the carefully constructed legend - and a role to sink her teeth into.

Since the Hartford run, "Tea at Five" has moved - with the help of the steady hand of director John Tillinger, helping to shape the script and the performance - to Cleveland, Cambridge and off-Broadway. Now on a short national tour, the work returns to Hepburn's hometown for a run that continues through Sunday at the Belding Theater in the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts.

In many ways, the script is improved, in other ways simply changed.

In the original Hartford production, Hepburn at age 31 in the first act was too much of a caricature, and the confident, self-centered, manipulative Kate quickly grew tiresome. Now, the young, red-haired Kate shows a softer, more likable side, and Mulgrew is even more at home in this role, down to her throwaway "ha!"s.

In this act, the play is still dramatically clunky, contrived and conventional: Phones have a tendency to conveniently ring at the most expositional-needy times ("Oh, hello agent Leland, brother Bill, first husband Luddy, Daddy").

But along the way, we also see the vulnerability beneath the veneer, which was lacking the first time in Hartford. It's all entertaining enough, with amusing anecdotes and an almost-gleeful performance by Mulgrew that sweeps you along on its own energy. It's more of a smooth, if not familiar, ride for both star and audience (except for an odd bit of trauma that has Hepburn having a strange flashback to a rehearsal for a Broadway play). And yes, the hurricane of '38 still arrives at the end of the act, along with the script of "The Philadelphia Story."

In the second act, it's more of a stream-of-conscious experience held together with an eventually fascinating performance by Mulgrew as Kate at the age of 76, when Parkinson's disease, an automobile accident and a career slowdown began to take its toll.

But the usually astute Mulgrew begins the second half with an exaggerated and severe vocal style that borders on parody. It's an odd and harsh approach following such a masterly and self-assured take in the first act. But after a while, the actress settles on a more natural and nuanced voice and manner, and the rest of the act - clearly the stronger of the two - gives her a grand opportunity to present the lioness in winter.

There's also an accumulated realization of the cost of celebrity, identity and career that seems to want to build to a climax but never does. In the original Hartford production, Hepburn had a bizarre "Rose's Turn" meltdown, throwing off one-liners from her famous films. Now, the play ends with Hepburn going almost gently into the good night, which is fine but far from fantastic. The visit with this old friend simply stops, and we are shown the door, in a way glad we came but slightly bewildered

Tony Straiges' set captures the simplicity - bordering on boredom - of the Fenwick home. Jess Goldstein's costumes are quintessential Kate; however, an outfit more flattering for Mulgrew in the first act, when she is portraying Hepburn in her sylph years, is recommended. 

Copyright 2004, Hartford Courant