by Margaret Croyden

Photo of Margaret Croyden
Margaret Croyden is a theater reviewer and essayist for the New York Theatre Wire.

"Tea At Five" -- Katherine Hepburn Comes Alive
by Matthew Lombardo
Promenade Theater
2162 Broadway
Reviewed by Margaret Croyden April 8, 2003

If you would like to have a nice relaxing and sometimes touching experience, go to the Promenade theater and bathe yourself in nostalgia. Kate Mulgrew is the charming Katherine Hepburn in a one-woman show and her performance is very much alive. Looking remarkably like the famous actress, using her voice and mannerisms cleverly, Ms. Mulgrew gives an uncanny performance. True the play is a bit of fluff and not noted for its depth, yet the playwright Matthew Lombardo does manage to catch some interesting aspects of the actress' life. And as directed by the ever busy John Tillinger, the play moves briskly along.

In the first act, 1938, Hepburn is shown in her country estate preparing her usual tea at five--emblem of the rich country squires of Connecticut. Hepburn is portrayed as a spoiled rich brat, full of egotism, a consummate snob, and a self indulgent, self-involved, prima donna. Not a very adorable picture. Yet, her self-denigration and candor about her personality cuts through the negatives and her humor about her faults diminishes the bad girl image. Musing about a series of dismal failures--the press voted her box office poison-- she had numerous flops on the stage and had been criticized for her lack of talent. Yet she is determined to get the leading role in "Gone With the Wind." We all know the outcome of that. Nevertheless she is not about to give up the ghost. Finally her luck changes when at the end of the act she receives the Philip Barry script of "Philadelphia Story"--the play that actually turned Hepburn's career around.
In the second act, 1983, Hepburn is now an old woman and in that role Ms. Mulgrew is particularly remarkable. She captures very perfectly Hepburn's tremors, her creaking voice due to her illness, and, in a rather touching moment, recalls her brother's suicide and her father's refusal to acknowledge it. This is the high point of the performance. Though it is a rather shocking revelation, it is also a humanizing one for it puts Hepburn in the ranks of ordinary people who have suffered family disputes and family hostilities. It is a moment that takes the audience by surprise. Apparently her father was an arrogant and dominating presence who ruled the household, and was boorish enough to destroy all her mother's papers after her death, as though she hadn't lived at all. A strange piece of information, indeed.

Of course the audience waits breathlessly for the play to reveal the particulars of the famous Hepburn-Spencer Tracy affair, but here the playwright falters. Not too much is told except that one gets the impression that Tracy was a male chauvinist, a drunk, a domineering, unlovable person--one wonders why Hepburn put up with him. Oh dear, another illusion shattered.

On the whole, the play is easy, and on the whole amusing, nothing great, but nothing terrible either. And if you want to see a really fine actress at work, go and appreciate Kate Mulgrew.[Croyden]

Margaret Croyden's latest book, "Conversations With Peter Brook, 1970-2000," is published by Farrar Straus and Giroux.

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