NEW YORK -- "Nothing irritates me more than when people try and soil my perfectly wicked reputation," remarks Katharine Hepburn in "Tea at Five," a new one-woman play about the actress that opened Sunday at the Promenade Theatre.
But that's pretty much what author Matthew Lombardo does -- he tidies up Hepburn's complexities and contradictions, compressing an extraordinary life and career into a cozy two-hour visit with a legendary lady.
"Tea at Five" is one of those mono-dramas where the personage enters a room while talking to on offstage servant, makes a phone call or two, then speaks directly to viewers for the rest of the time.
In this case, the room is one in the Hepburn family's seaside house in Old Saybrook, Conn. The first act is set in 1938 when the actress, branded "box office poison," has retreated from Hollywood to plot her next career move. The second act happens in 1983, when Hepburn is a feisty 76 and reflects upon her life and loves.
There are probably only a few surprises for Hepburn admirers, presumably this show's target audience.
One hears passing remarks about beaux like agent Leland Hayward and billionaire Howard Hughes and rather more about her long relationship with Spencer Tracy. There are stories about Hepburn's relatives (though nothing is mentioned of her several sisters), anecdotes about a few films and, perhaps most amusingly, the scoop on her embarrassing Broadway flop in "The Lake."
Hepburn confides the backstage dish on that 1933 fiasco with relish, complete with a mischievous imitation of her own acting mannerisms as she breathlessly utters the deathless "The calla lilies are in bloom again" speech.
Making the sequence extra fun is how well Kate Mulgrew humorously depicts Hepburn's self-mockery. The aristocratic Bryn Mawr accent goes la-dee-da. The angular carriage melts into languor. The penetrating gaze glazes over.
After seven years amid the syndicated galaxies of "Star Trek: Voyager," it's obvious that Mulgrew enjoys her return to the stage as Hepburn.
All high cheekbones and tomboy assurance, Mulgrew strides about the room, perching jauntily upon nearly every piece of furniture as she fetchingly portrays Hepburn in her comely 30s. In the second part, Mulgrew aptly suggests the aging star's frailty; the voice quavers, the head trembles, yet her indomitable spirit burns brightly.
Astutely guiding Mulgrew's performance, director John Tillinger situates the actress in a mellow, airy room designed by Tony Straiges in gleaming maple and summery chintz. It looks like just the sort of Yankee abode that Hepburn would maintain.
A handsomely produced show, "Tea at Five" proves mild yet convivial fare, better enjoyed as an easygoing matinee entertainment than an evening stimulant. Mulgrew's smart presence sneaks a welcome dash of brandy into the biographical brew.
Copyright 2003 The Star-Ledger.