By Hap Erstein, Palm Beach Post Theater Writer
Katharine Hepburn was one of the most magnetic actresses our nation has ever produced and one of the most guarded and reclusive.
The thought of her holding court in front of a few hundred strangers at her Fenwick, Conn., hideaway, spinning anecdotes of her career and spilling secrets of her private life, is as preposterous as it is compelling.
So although Matthew Lombardo's dishy but hardly revelatory one-woman show, Tea at Five, is far-fetched at best, that is unlikely to stop the legions of Hepburn fans eager to spend a couple of hours in the presence of a theatrical facsimile of the late stage and screen icon.
Thanks to the crafty and at times uncanny impersonation by Kate Mulgrew -- the actress for whom the play was written -- it is possible to overlook the script's shortcomings and enjoy the company of the two Kates during the off-Broadway hit's first engagement outside of New York at the Cuillo Centre in West Palm Beach.
No, make that three Kates, for Mulgrew offers us two distinct, impressive portraits of the woman whose show business career spanned more than a half-century. In Act One, her Hepburn is a coltish, fiercely determined, 31-year-old redhead, reeling from a string of flops, declared "box office poison" by columnist Louella Parsons.
Even so, the Yankee-born star obsessively strategizes how to win the plum role of Southern belle Scarlett O'Hara in some promising Civil War epic that producer David O. Selznick is preparing for the cameras.
Act Two fast-forwards 45 years to the lioness in winter, her hair turned salt-and-pepper, her body palsied with Parkinson's, her gait slowed to a limp by a recent automobile accident. Yet she takes the time to address the audience with her moist-eyed memories of the love of her life, Spencer Tracy. Although set on retirement, she is flattered by the attentions of Warren Beatty, who keeps phoning about a role in his upcoming movie (Hepburn's last role was in his flop, Love Affair).
If playwright Lombardo chooses to ignore the considerable dramatic limitations of the one-person format, director John Tillinger -- who also staged the George Burns show, Say Goodnight Gracie -- risks slipping into parody by having the young, athletic Hepburn bound all about the living room set, alighting on most of the furniture for no discernible reason.
In the lighter-toned first half of the play, we learn of Hepburn's devotion to her feminist mother, tension with her disapproving father, seduction attempts by early costar John Barrymore and her brief foray into the peculiar institution of marriage with the dull Ludlow Ogden Smith.
Throughout this march of information, Hepburn works the phone, berating her agent-lover Leland Hayward for not securing the coveted Gone With the Wind role ("Vivien who?"), but gaining a consolation script of consequence by the first act curtain.
After Mulgrew's startling intermission transformation -- thanks in no small part to Paul Huntley's wig design -- she launches, unprompted and unmotivated, into her recollection of discovering the hanged body of her teenage older brother, Tom, some 60 years earlier.
That leads to a sudden odd mention of her short-lived musical theater career in Coco and her confrontation with Manhattan next-door-neighbor Stephen Sondheim. Then comes the main event, her candid, extended discourse on Tracy. Wondering why is fruitless; just drink it in.
Mulgrew starts with a visual and aural resemblance to Hepburn, plus an easygoing charm that goes a long way toward covering the play's weaknesses. With her right profile, the likeness is particularly on-target.
She has two distinctly different vocal timbres for the two acts, both highly persuasive. Even if one-person shows are not your cup of tea, Mulgrew is reason enough to come gawk at Tea at Five.