March 4, 2002

Tea at Five - Theater Review

by Markland Taylor


 HARTFORD, Conn. A Hartford Stage Co. presentation of a play in two acts by Matthew
 Lombardo. Directed by John Tillinger. Set, Tony Straiges; costumes, Jess Goldstein; lighting,
 Kevin Adams; music and sound, John Gromada; production stage manager, Christa Bean.
 Artistic director, Michael Wilson. Opened, reviewed Feb. 13, 2002. Running time: 1 HOUR, 55

 Katharine Hepburn   Kate Mulgrew

 Matthew Lombardo wrote this solo play about Katharine Hepburn specifically for Kate
 Mulgrew, who bears a physical and vocal resemblance to the Hartford, Conn.-born star.
 Indeed, playing Hepburn at her prime (age 30) in act one and aged and shaking in act two,
 Mulgrew gives a remarkable performance. She has all the experience and technique to hold
 the stage, and if her characterization occasionally topples over into caricature, it must be
 remembered that Hepburn herself sometimes indulged in serf-caricature.

 Already a popular hit for Hartford Stage (it's been extended through March 17), "Tea at Five"
 is never less than utterly professional entertainment. But Lombardo's script, though deft and
 polished, seldom gets below the Hepburn surface as it serves up her life story, most of which
 Mulgrew delivers directly to the audience.

 The "loud and bossy" (even bitchy) veneer is seldom penetrated and, on the basis of act
 one, it's possible to dislike Hepburn. The emotional heart of the play comes in the middle of
 act two when, sad and alone, Hepburn finally tells the traumatic story of her beloved older
 brother's suicide at age 15 (Hepburn discovered his body). She goes on to reveal that
 suicide was a kind of family curse. The play needs to reveal more of Hepburn's humanity and
 ease up on the brittle, bitchy comedy.

 It takes place in the living room of the Hepburn "cottage" in Fenwick, Conn., on Long Island
 Sound. First act unfolds when Hepburn was home licking her wounds after seven flop films
 and a place of honor on the "box office poison" list. Curtain comes with the arrival of the
 script of "The Philadelphia Story," which mightily revived Hepburn's stage and screen careers.

 Act two takes place shortly after Hepburn had a car accident in which she broke an ankle.
 It's supposed to be 1983, yet Mulgrew's brilliantly aged Hepburn looks older than she would
 have been at that time, and her phone conversations with Warren Beatty are about
 appearing in the film "Love Affair," which was made in 1994. (Lombardo occasionally plays
 loosely with dates and facts here and elsewhere.)

 The aged Hepburn wears Spencer Tracy's red sweater over her shoulder, cueing
 reminiscences about her nearly 30-year affair with tortured Spence. The play nears its end
 with a montage of bits and pieces of scenes from Hepburn's life, plays and films (including
 snippets of Shakespeare) in an attempt to cover elements that hadn't been covered
 elsewhere. Unfortunately, Lombardo delivers about three false endings in place of one
 satisfying one.

 Mulgrew and director John Tillinger appear to have worked closely together to give the
 production life and movement. And Tony Straiges has designed a cozily realistic living-room

Overall, Lombardo and Mulgrew have done a fine job of capturing the public Hepburn, but
 they've had less success with the private one. That may well be just how Hepburn, who
 continues to live in fragile health at the Fenwick cottage, would want it.

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