New York NewsDay

March 9, 2003

Special Ks
Kate Mulgrew plays another Kate - Hepburn - in 'Tea at Five' Off-Broadway

By Blake Green
Staff Writer
There are at least three different ways to spell that given name for which "Kate" is an abbreviation, and here, in a single person, you can find them all: Katherine Mulgrew whose current stage role - Katharine Hepburn - follows seven seasons on television as Kathryn Janeway.

Mulgrew, who prefers the nickname in her billing, talked about these three Ks - occasionally slipping into the voice and mannerisms of her two characters - on a recent mid-morning in the sunny Upper West Side apartment where she makes her home after years on the other coast. Out west, she was first and foremost a television creature, most recently in "Star Trek: Voyager," in which she played the first female starship captain of the various "Trek" series.

Viewers of the "Star Trek" franchise certainly have not forgotten their strong-willed Captain Janeway since the "Voyager" series was completed in 2001. Mulgrew reprised her role in a cameo in the recent film, "Star Trek: Nemesis," and groups of ever-faithful Trekkers often have turned up in audiences for "Tea at Five," the play about Hepburn that stars Mulgrew.

Performances, which began last year in Hartford, were followed by productions in Cleveland (where, as the wife of Ohio politician Tim Hagan since 1999, Mulgrew has another home) and Boston. Now "Tea at Five" is in previews at the Off-Broadway Promenade Theatre.

"They're the best fan base in the world," Mulgrew says in praise of the Trekkies."They've been coming to see me from all over the world since the play's inception - five, six, seven times."

Hepburn's fans also have been enjoying this reincarnation, seeing a portrayal of the star in the first act at 31, just before she did "The Philadelphia Story," and, in the second, at 76, when late in her career she reminisces, including about some very personal family things and her legendary affair with Spencer Tracy.

In the play and for the interview, an overstuffed couch is the seating of choice, the theater set designed to resemble the living room in Hepburn's Connecticut family home on Long Island Sound where, at 95, the actress still lives.

Mulgrew's brown hair is pulled back in a bun; in the play, the early Hepburn's reddish hair is worn in a '30s glamorous, cascading style; the older character has the curly, graying topknot - as well as the pronounced facial tremor - familiar from later films and television appearances.

Playwright Matthew Lombardo was inspired to write "Tea at Five" after watching an episode of "Voyager" on television. "She seems so Hepburnesque," he says of Mulgrew, whom he reached through a mutual friend. In addition to their physical resemblance, he believes the two actresses are "extremely driven and highly perfectionist. They both began working when they were very young and always supported themselves." "I've been likened to her so often," says Mulgrew, who grew up near Dubuque, Iowa, and began her career when Hepburn was an established film icon. "So, naturally, early on I developed an antipathy for her. One wants to be an actress in one's own right. But it goes without saying I always admired her work and her chutzpah. She could not be less than total.

"Now that I've been doing the play, I've developed a genuine affection." Mulgrew found the Hepburn of Act 2 easier to slip into than the younger woman. "It was a natural fit, a kind of alchemy. I'm 47, my personality and disposition lend itself to her reflections."

Hepburn's view of Mulgrew remains unknown. Her niece, Katharine Houghton, who attended a performance of "Tea at Five" in Hartford, reportedly pronounced it "trash," but Lombardo says Houghton has written her own unproduced play about Hepburn.

"I've stayed out of that," Mulgrew says about reports of the family's displeasure. "I understand both sides. She [Hepburn] was fiercely private, and her niece is very protective. But I say nothing on that stage I have not found at least four sources of validation for, and I would not do anything to offend this remarkable woman."

During the play's run, Mulgrew has surmounted two hurdles: In Hartford, she developed vocal problems - "there's a real trick to the way she talks in Act 2. I'm clutching my vocal cords and deepening my voice" - which she hopes are behind her, and in Cleveland, the play's run coincided with her husband's unsuccessful campaign for governor of Ohio. "I managed to do both things," she says of performing and campaigning, "but I learned a lesson. Nothing is harder than running for political office."

Asked to bring Janeway into the discussion, Mulgrew compares the roles: "This time I'm playing a living, breathing human being, but I gave life to Kathryn Janeway, which was absolutely thrilling.

"I decided to do this," she says of playing Hepburn, "because I desperately wanted to get back into the theater" after having established herself not only in the "Star Trek" series but other television work as "Mrs. Columbo" and the daytime drama "Ryan's Hope."

If she worries the super-popular "Star Trek" might have forever stereotyped her as the strong Janeway, she doesn't admit it. "I could do a lot worse that Kate Janeway, couldn't I?" She stops for a moment, then slyly adds: "Or Katharine Hepburn."

WHERE&WHEN "Tea at Five," a one-woman show about Katharine Hepburn, opens Sunday at Off-Broadway's Promenade Theatre, Broadway at 76th Street. For ticket information and performance times, call 212-239-6200.

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