By John Williams
I want to thank John Williams for providing his review for use on Totally Kate!
Saturday, April 5, 3pm
Promenade Theatre, 76th & Broadway
New York City
It's rare that I get to see a play more than once, and even more rare for me to see a production in both its infancy and in a revamped version. I had this opportunity with Tea At Five, as I'd seen it over a year ago in Hartford, and this past weekend I caught the New York version.
Unless you've been tooling around the Delta Quadrant , you know that Tea At Five is Kate Mulgrew's one-person play about Katharine Hepburn, in which she plays the actress at the age of 31 and 76 over the course of two acts. Act I shows Hepburn cocooning in her family's home in Fenwick, CT as she recovers from a long string of movie flops and connives for the role of Scarlett in Gone With the Wind. She is defiant, witty, narcissistic, arrogant, and beautiful - and steeped with a deep, abiding pain which permeates throughout the production. Mulgrew clearly relishes the experience of being this woman, as she lets loose (a bit too much, here and there) and completely dominates the stage - and the theatre. She is dazzling and eminently watchable.
Mulgrew is terrific in Act I, but she's magnificent in Act II. Here we see Hepburn in the twilight of her able-bodied years, laid up with a broken ankle from a car accident. As the lights come up, Mulgrew turns slowly to face the audience, and for the remainder of the act she is Hepburn. It's not an impersonation as much as it is a possession, and the effect is eerie and wonderful. We're absolutely convinced that 45 years have passed, and though Hepburn is no less brash and witty, the pain from her past is no less intense, and perhaps even more so.
The Promenade is a smaller and older theatre than the Hartford Stage, and the stage is much shallower, which only intensifies the intimacy of the experience. I was in the fourth row but was so close to Mulgrew that I could see every nuance of her physical performance. There's a bit less of a set than there was in Hartford - some of the furniture is gone, like a desk, and the sofa and chairs are pushed together so closely that Mulgrew had to watch her step every now and then. This gives her less room to move, which helped in some ways - I remember one of my problems with the Hartford version was Mulgrew's tendency to overdo it a bit in the flamboyant gestures department - but also hemmed her in, in a noteably distracting way.
Parts of my memory may be faulty here, but it's my impression that the play has been tightened up considerably, and for the better. One scene has been excised completely - towards the end Mulgrew was hit by several spotlights from different directions, and each time she uttered a famous line from one of Hepburn's films. It didn't work in Hartford and was my least favorite part of the play, so I was glad to see it go. My impression was that it had been intended to be an electrifying and dramatic climax to a play which was both of those things already.
It seems to me that the material concerning Hepburn's nearly thirty-year romance with Spencer Tracy has been expanded, and thus gives us more of a glimpse into the reasons why she was so in love with a guy who, judging by the anecdotes told onstage, could be an incredibly abusive jerk.
One change I found disappointing: Mulgrew no longer bounds onto the stage in a one-piece bathing suit (Hepburn has just returned from a swim at the start of the play). Sue me; it was a high point for me in the Hartford version!
As I said above, Mulgrew is eminently watchable (which is why I could get through just about any Voyager episode). Onstage, she locks on and draws you in - it's nearly impossible to become distracted or drift off. However, there are moments where she overdoes it a bit - too often she flails her hands and arms around in too grand a fashion, and periodically the aged Hepburn would abruptly unstiffen and become impossibly graceful for a woman of her age and condition. But the only reason I noticed little details like that was because I couldn't keep my eyes off her for an instant.
Captain - I mean, Admiral - Janeway was nowhere in sight. No, I take that back: Mulgrew brought her onstage for one brief moment when she did the classic reverse-right hand on hip, left hand on back of neck maneuver - you know, when the Captain was working on a particularly nettlesome problem. It made me grin, but then she was gone.
Overall, I think Mulgrew has worked extremely hard at this role, and one feels a certain small amount of awe in her presence which has nothing to do with the novelty of seeing a Trek actor onstage. She seems more than capable of living comfortably as Voyager's captain and as the carrier of Hepburn's walk-in spirit, and I never got the impression that she was just another TV actress trying desperately to shed her popcult image. A small triumph, that.
The day of the Hartford performance, I attended a small luncheon sponsored by the local Trek fan club in honor of Mulgrew, who seemed delighted to be there and clearly enjoys her place among Trek fandom. It was a small thrill to see her as a 'real person', which only enhanced the intimacy of the play later that evening. I guess I was spoiled, because I kept hoping to see her on the street, or at the Cosi coffee shop next to the theatre. G'wan and laugh, but I couldn't help feeling stood up! After the play, we went to dinner at the Westide Brewing Co., just up the block, and the waitress told us Mulgrew had been in the week before. Curses!
I brought my parents to the play, and while I think they anticipated enjoying themselves - "Sure, son, sounds like fun, seeing this Star Trek actress playing Katharine Hepburn" - I think they were unprepared for the impact Mulgrew's performance had on them. My mom was sobbing at the end, her own memories of a family tragedy stirred up by a crucial scene in the play, and both were astounded by Mulgrew's incarnation of Hepburn. This pleased me no end.
Whether you adore Mulgrew or not, Tea At Five is well-worth the experience.