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A CurtainUp Review
Tea at Five

When you're out there and immersed in the magic, and the lights are shining, and the cameras are rolling, and your bank account is growing -- you think it will never end. But it does. And when you fall? You fall harder than those who never had a taste of what you had.
--- Katharine Hepburn at thirty-one, after a series of movie flops have sent her into retreat at the Connecticut home where family custom dictated (by her doctor father) that the family gather for conversation and "Tea At Five."
The solo show has seeded a whole strata of classifications and sub-classifications. The personal experience or biographical play has three chief subsets. First is the story of an unknown or not particularly famous narrator who often slip into the voice and persona of mothers, fathers, friends, etc. The staying power of such plays was most recently exemplified by Pamela Gem's The Syringa Tree. (CurtainUp review) Next, we have celebrity narrators replaying bits and pieces of their lives, a notable case in point here being Elaine Stritch's Tony-award winning super hit Elaine Stritch At Liberty. (CurtainUp review) Finally, there are celebrities -- preferably colorful legends -- who though no longer able to speak for themselves who provide an actor who has the right looks and voice to do a convincing impersonation. Which brings us to the two Kates now pouring tea and talking up a storm at the Promenade Theater.

The Kate who prompted this tea party is Katharine Hepburn, the legendary stage and screen actress whose career spanned more than six decades. Kate Mulgrew, better known to millions as Captain Kathryn Janeway of TV's StarTrek: Voyager is the latest actress parlaying a slight if not identical twin-like resemblance to Hepburn into a showcase for her acting talents.

Mulgrew has neither the lean and lanky body or angular face of Hepburn, but she has adapted her own husky voice to capture the distinctive lady-to-the-manor born accent that was Hepburn's hallmark. It is the way she captures the impression of the Hepburn persona and the sense she conveys that she looks as well as sounds like her, that gives her performance its tour-de-force stamp and will make audiences (especially Hepburn and/or StarTrek fans) overlook the weakness of Matthew Lombardo's script. John Tillinger's lively direction and Tony Straiges' handsome recreation of the Connecticut estate where the ninety-six-year-old Hepburn still lives, help to make for an entertaining hour and forty minutes despite Lombardo's failure to make Tea with this Kate as stimulating and enlightning as it deserves to be.

The play's structure of two tea time conversations between Hepburn and the audience, as well as assorted people who keep the phone frequently off the hook, is fine. The 1938 act one to the 1983 act two makes for a startling transition from thirty-one-year old anxious to get her chops into a career-reviving role (Scarlett O'Hara) to a seventy-six-year old recovering from an accident probably caused by the palsy about which she is still in denial.

The solo play's technique of using the audience to supply the sense of interaction that's missing when only one actor is on stage make a decorating scheme that has the couch facing the orchestra rather than the fireplace perfectly acceptable -- or would be if Ms. Mulgrew wasn't asked to stride on stage as if in a regular scene and then make an instant ninety-degree turn to become our wisecracking confidante. The second and better act, is much more subtle in taking us from the older Hepburn to her fourteen year old self touchingly reliving the suicide of her beloved older brother.

The above quibble would be minor if the piece generally, and the first act in particular, weren't so much an example of lazy playwriting. Granted, that the prime audience for this are Hepburn enthusiasts who have seen enough of her films and plays, and read her own still in-print biography, Me: Stories of My Life as well as other accounts of her much publicized, twenty-seven year relationship with her co-star in Adam's Rib, Spencer Tracy. But even if these viewers are up on who's who in Hepburn's Hollywood, why not give younger audience members a break and identify Leland as Leland Hayward; Howard as millionaire Howard Hughess, who sent her the script for Philadelphia Story, a far more successful vehicle for her than Gone With the Wind would have been); and Warren as Warren Beattie (the caller trying to lure her out of retirement) as Warren Beattie? Better still, why not, instead of all this tabloid style name-dropping, give us a fuller picture of Hepburn's impulse to become an actress and the people and experiences encountered on her way up and down the Hollywood ladder.

It would have helped to include some biographical details in the program notes as well as a list of her plays and films -- the latter included for readers' enlightenment at the end of the program notes. According to a friend who saw the Hartford production of Tea at Five, the original second act included a brief montage of film clips. I can see where this might have been intrusive as part of the play.

Despite Mr. Lombardi's poor choices of what to include and omit, there is considerable charm in his Hepburn character talking with a self-deprecating sense of humor about the slings and arrows tossed her way. If Dorothy Parker were still around she might well apply rate Hepburn's interpreter as lifting a script with a depth ranging from A to B to an A to Z range performance.

Written by Matthew Lombardo
Directed by John Tillinger
Set Design: Tony Straiges
Costume Design: Jess Goldstein
Lighting Design: Kevin Adams
Sound Design: John Gromada
Wig Design: Paul Huntley
Running time: 1 hour and 40 minutes, includes one intermission
Promenade, Broadway & 76 St. 212/239/6200
2/25/03-5/04/03 . Tues - Sat @8PM, Sat & Sun @3PM--$60
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on March 8th press performance
Films and Plays in which Katharine Hepburn Appeared
  • A Bill of Divorcement (1932)
  • Christopher Strong (1933)
  • Morning Glory (1933)
  • Little Women (1933)
  • Spitfire (1934)
  • The Little Minister (1934)
  • Break of Hearts (1935)
  • Alice Adams (1935)
  • Sylvia Scarlett (1936)
  • Mary of Scotland (1936)
  • A Woman Rebels (1936)
  • Quality Street (1937)
  • Stage Door (1937)
  • Bringing Up Baby (1938)
  • Holiday (1938)
  • The Philadelphia Story (1940)
  • Woman of the Year (1942)
  • Keeper of the Flame (1942)
  • Stage Door Canteen (1943)
  • Dragon Seed (1944)
  • Without Love (1945)
  • The Sea of Grass (1947)
  • Song of Love (1947)
  • State of the Union (1948)
  • Adam's Rib (1949)
  • The African Queen (1951)
  • Pat and Mike (1952)
  • Summertime (1955)
  • The Rainmaker (1956)
  • The Iron Petticoat (1956)
  • Suddenly Last Summer (1959)
  • Long Day's Journey Into Night (1962)
  • Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (1967)
  • The Lion in Winter (1968)
  • The Madwoman of Chaillot (1969)
  • The Trojan Women (1971)
  • A Delicate Balance (1973)
  • Rooster Cogburn (1975)
  • Olly, Olly, Oxen Free (1978)
  • On Golden Pond (1981)
  • The Ultimate Solution of Grace Quigley (1985)
  • Love Affair (1994)
  • The Czarina (1928)
  • The Cradle Snatchers (1928)
  • These Days (1928)
  • Holiday (1928)
  • Death Takes a Holiday (1929)
  • A Month in the Country (1930)
  • The Admirable Crichton (1930)
  • Romeo and Juliet (1930)
  • Art and Mrs. Bottle (1930)
  • Just Married (1931)
  • The Cat and the Canary (1931)
  • The Man Who Came Back (1931)
  • The Animal Kingdom (1931)
  • The Warrior's Husband (1932)
  • The Bride the Sun Shines On (1932)
  • The Lake (1933)
  • Jane Eyre (1936)
  • The Philadelphia Story (1939)
  • Without Love (1942)
  • As You Like It (1950)
  • The Millionairess (1952)
  • The Taming of the Shrew (1955)
  • Measure for Measure (1955)
  • The Merchant of Venice (1955)
  • The Merchant of Venice (1957)
  • Much Ado About Nothing (1957)
  • Twelfth Night (1960)
  • Antony and Cleopatra (1960)
  • Coco (1969)
  • A Matter of Gravity (1976)
  • West Side Waltz (1981)
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