Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, April 2009
“Life is to be lived. If you have to support yourself, you had bloody well better find some way that is going to be interesting. And you don't do that by sitting around wondering about yourself.”
– Katharine Hepburn
If you’re given a choice between money and sex appeal, take the money. As you get older, the money will become your sex appeal.”
– Katharine Hepburn
Tracy Lord ought to have listened to Katharine Hepburn. Tracy spends all three acts of The Philadelphia Story wondering about herself, all the while being encouraged to value and accentuate her sex appeal over her financial wealth. We leave 24-year-old Tracy blissfully happy, on her father’s arm, about to walk down the aisle for the second time in less than two years with the same man.
Is that really a happy ending?
Playwright Philip Barry wrote the character of Tracy Lord for Hepburn to play, but she was based on Hepburn’s friend Helen Hope Montgomery Scott, the Philadelphia Main Line socialite, who in turn was married to Barry’s former Harvard roommate. This kind of high society inbreeding is exactly what Barry wrote about, and it was the world from which he and Hepburn came. One of the questions Barry poses in the play is what use people like the Lord family are in the world. He never answers that question, so presumably they are only useful for poking fun at on stage in comedies of manners.
I doubt that there were adults in the theatre who were unfamiliar with the convoluted plot of The Philadelphia Story – the 1940 film starring Heburn, Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart is ubiquitous and excellent. It is also very faithful to its source material, so although this stage play (1939) predates the film, as was the norm in those days, it now feels exactly like those endless “new” plays and musicals that promise to present your favorite film “live on stage,” an utterly pointless exercise because film and theatre are completely different media and because the one thing you are guaranteed in the stage version is that none of the actors from your favorite film will be appearing.
It is very, very hard to separate Tracy Lord from Katharine Hepburn. I personally never bought Grace Kelly in the role in the 1956 film musical version High Society*, even though Kelly actually WAS Main Line Philadelphia society (although rather noveau), whereas Hepburn was a New Englander.
Katharine Hepburn is dead and gone. She was a true original and any imitation is bound to be a pale one. But, alas, director William Fortune has his Tracy, Mary Jane Hansen, coiffed and dressed as a Hepburn doppelganger (compare this costume Hepburn wears in the film to the one Brent Griffin designed for Hansen to wear in the exact same scene in the NYSTI production) and every now and then you even catch a tiny trace of Hepburn’s sharp, nasal tones in her line delivery.
So instead of getting the talented and beautiful Mary Jane Hansen, what you get is Not Katharine Hepburn. The same is true of Jason Marr, who, in the role of Tracy’s ex-husband C.K. Dexter Haven, is DEFINITELY Not Cary Grant. If you look at the publicity stills from the film there are lots of shots of Grant and Hepburn sharing deep and meaningful glances, I don’t think Hansen and Marr looked even briefly in each other’s direction. Marr had no chemistry with anyone, no charisma, he was just some stick-like guy hovering around the periphery of the plot trying to be suave.
And Tracy picks him. She picks him over David Girard’s warm, funny, and winning Macauley “Mike” Connor. Duh!
Matthew DeCapua would have been a far better choice to play Dexter, but instead he is cast as Alexander “Sandy” Lord, Tracy’s brother. He is the man with whom she seems warm and familiar, as one would with a sibling. That natural chemistry could have been put to better use if Hansen and DeCapua were playing sparring ex’s, rather than sister and brother.
I had spent the week prior to seeing this show asking people – male and female, gay and straight – who they would pick if given a choice between Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart (like that tenor who isn’t Pavarotti or Domingo, Tracy’s fiancé, George Kittredge, played in the film by John Howard and here by David Bunce, is definitely “The Other Guy”) and there was only one vote for Grant. I am sure if I had taken a similar poll at the second intermission between Marr and Girard the results would have been identical. It’s so OBVIOUS that Tracy should marry Mike, but she doesn’t (at least not when she’s 24) because in those days adultery was not allowed to be publicly rewarded and the censors would not have passed the tale if Tracy didn’t end up with either her ex-husband or her fiancé. Barry cleverly provides Mike with the ever- patient and forgiving Liz (Susan Ciarelli Caputo), a woman of his own social class, to whom he must be true.
Bunce is too good an actor to be stuck playing “The Other Guy” (and he does NOT need that toupee to be attractive.) I found myself liking him when I shouldn’t, wanting him to get a chance with Tracy when I knew he wouldn’t.
Caputo is a cutie, made for witty repartee. Mike is certainly not “settling” by returning to Liz rather than marrying Tracy.
Eleah Jane Peal, a young actress whose work I have enjoyed before, has been encouraged to mug way too much here as Diana, aka Dinah, the youngest of the Lord siblings. But for a high school sophomore she is impressive and a fine advertisement for NYSTI’s education programs. And I am always happy to hear Lydia, the Tattooed Lady belted out with gusto.
I mentioned the plot is convoluted. I have already rehearsed some of the numerous romantic entanglements, some of which play better than others (loved the reunion of the Lord parents, Seth (Joel Aroeste) and Margaret (Eileen Schuyler), and was tickled by the secret flirtation of the butler Thomas (John McGuire, who makes his exits with a wonderful Groucho walk) and maid Elsie Mae (Carole Edie Smith)), but the tabloid press plot that brings Mike and Liz to Tracy’s wedding, makes it necessary for Tracy to introduce her Uncle Willie (the always entertaining John Romeo) as her father, and keeps Sandy up all night typing is absolutely lost, which is a pity because yellow journalism is still with us and the paparazzi (Liz is a paparazzo, or should that be paparazza?) have an even worse reputation now than they did back then.
Griffin’s costumes for Hansen and Peal try altogether too hard, but the rest of the cast is suitably attired. Caputo and Schuyler get some really chic and becoming period ensembles. Duke Durfee’s set transitioned well from the interior in Act I to the exterior in Act II and then back again for Act III, but I was sad to see one spot where the masking had come unstapled and the underpinnings of the set were showing.
For the school audiences that NYSTI targets, I would imagine that a play about the rich and famous trying to put one over on the persistent press would resonate better than one about which guy some snotty rich dame is going to marry. With the latter muddied and glossed over, and the show running nearly three hours, I imagine there will be some restless bottoms in the seats of the Schacht Arts Center.
The NYSTI production of The Philadelphia Story runs April 24-May 3 in the Schacht Fine Arts Center on the campus of Russell Sage College, off of Division St. between Front and First Streets in Troy, New York. The show runs three hours with two intermissions. As is always the case with a NYSTI production, this show is intended as educational theatre and is recommended for children in grade 8 and up. Call the box office at 518-274-3256 between 9-4 p.m. for tickets and information. (If you are calling within the hour before show time the box office number is 518-244-6888.)
* The Philadelphia Story progressed from play (1939) to film (1940) to musical film (1956) and, finally, to stage musical (1998), which version will open the Mac-Haydn’s 2009 season at the end of May. Grace Kelly, Bing Crosby, and Frank Sinatra will not be appearing in it.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2009