New York News Day

 One-Woman Brew, a Bit Decaffeinated

By Gordon Cox
Gordon Cox is a frequent contributor to Newsday.

March 10, 2003

The one-actor biographical play offers its audience a predictably narrow range of pleasures. It affords an intimately imagined glimpse of a famous and/or beloved personage, which is undoubtedly a special treat for fans of the play's subject. It also gives an actor a chance at a bravura performance, an opportunity to live inside a well-known real-life character with all those familiar quirks and mannerisms.

What a solo bio rarely offers, though, is compelling drama-at least not the kind in which there are conflicts and tension, and in which things actually happen. "Tea at Five," the one-woman show about Katharine Hepburn that opened last night at the Promenade, is no surprise in that respect: Over the play's two static acts, Hepburn, portrayed by Kate Mulgrew, sits in her living room (rendered with well-worn comfort by set designer Tony Straiges) and addresses the audience with a series of reminiscences and ruminations about her life.

But as directed with clean unfussiness by John Tillinger, the production will, at least, warm the hearts of Hepburn devotees with its tales of John Barrymore and Spencer Tracy. And Mulgrew, who already looks a little like Hepburn, often manages to bring a fiery sense of inner life to her smooth physical impersonation, which captures the actress' husky upper-crust diction, her patrician chin, and, in the second act, the unsteady palsy of her head.

Mulgrew (whose TV career stretches from her seven-year run as Capt.Janeway on "Star Trek: Voyager" all the way back to the soap opera "Ryan's Hope," which premiered in 1975) is most fun to watch in the show's first half, which takes place in 1938. Her 31-year-old Hepburn is a cocky tomboy, stalking around the stage with a masculine walk and clambering unpredictably over the furniture (all while wearing an elegantly no-nonsense pantsuit, provided by costume designer Jess Goldstein).

In the second act (which takes place in 1983, when Hepburn was 76), Hepburn's gnawing restlessness gives way to a more self-satisfied brand of histrionics that's less intriguing, even if Mulgrew handles the external specifics of Parkinson's disease with clear-eyed care.

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. There's more than one awkward emotional segue, and he makes regular use of clanking lines such as, "I'll never forget the first day of filming..." He also unwisely suggests a sentimental and psychologically reductive explanation for Hepburn's need to act.

In those respects, "Tea at Five" falls into the traps common to a one-actor stage biography. But it should still neatly satisfy those theatergoers for whom this sort of thing is their cup of tea.


TEA AT FIVE. By Matthew Lombardo, directed by John Tillinger. With Kate Mulgrew. Set by TonyStraiges, costumes by Jess Goldstein, lightsby Kevin Adams, sound by John Gromada, wigs by Paul Huntley. Promenade Theatre, Broadway at 76th Street. Seen at preview Thursday night.

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