The Philadelphia Story by Philip Barry. Directed by Bill Fortune.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"It’s a pity your own foot can’t slip a little some time.."
In 1938, without a sustainable Hollywood career any longer, Katherine Hepburn returned to New York from Hollywood and formed an alliance with the playwright Philip Barry, whose plays she had performed in at the start of her career (she also filmed one of them, "Holiday"). Together they forged a play for her based on the experiences of a friend of his. They called it "The Philadelphia Story," and Miss Hepburn took it to Broadway in the company of Joseph Cotton, Shirley Booth, Van Heflin and Anne Baxter. It was a smash hit, running 415 performances on Broadway. It was also the script that bought Hepburn back her film career. Seen frequently now on television, the story is over-familiar and the script is eminently quotable. Any company taking it on risks a great deal with an audience that arrives knowing what to expect.
At the New York State Theatre Institute such risks are common. This new production takes few chances, preferring, as they should, to do the script pretty much as written, without altering the period of the play, without altering any motivations in any way. They also, wisely, do not attempt to play "in the style of" Hepburn, or Cary Grant, or James Stewart in the principal romantic trio. That lack of imitation brings a freshness to the final product and kudos to the players.
The company of players at this institution work together often, so they understand each other’s rhythms and work habit. Sometimes that makes them a bit lazy, but this time around they seem to spark one another brilliantly. This is particularly true of Mary Jane Hansen who takes the central role of Tracy Lord. Her face, hands, body and voice are ever at work; her mind resonates with Tracy’s thoughts. She literally embodies the role. She hasn’t got Hepburn’s brittleness; she doesn’t use Grace Kelly’s mannerisms. She brings to life a new Tracy, one of her own creation and she does it with flair. On her brow and around her mouth we can see the trials of a woman about to embark on a second marriage. In her gestures we feel the daughter who feels betrayed by a philandering father. Hansen manages all of this and also gets the comedy that her character needs to be truly enjoyed. It is a wonderful performance.
As her first husband, C. K. Dexter Haven, Jason Marr pulls off the nearly impossible task of replacing Cary Grant. He manages it in some truly memorable costumes by Brent Griffin. His tall, lanky body is more Jimmy Stewart than Grant, his voice’s treble register nothing like the film star’s voice. He is not the romantic figure, which Barry doesn’t claim him to be. Instead, he is the ever-present "elephant in the room." If there is a romantic battle to be won, Marr plays it out in the subtleties and he wins what there is to win.
Tracy’s fiancé, George Kittredge is very nicely played by David Bunce who is almost the perfect actor for the role. He moves easily from sweet to stuffy, from snob to common-man. We almost want him to win Tracy back when he starts to lose her. Bunce knows how to play this sort of role. He does it to perfection in this play. As the third point in the all-male triangle surrounding Tracy is David Girard as the reporter Macauley Connor. He is a trifle too smarmy at moments, but always pulls that back to be the charmer that "Mike" can be. He is particularly good in Act Three.
Dinah, Tracy’s teen-age sister, was played to near-perfection by Eleah Jane Peal. Tracy’s mother is well-handled by Eileen Schuyler, although she felt a trifle too old for the role. Her husband was wonderfully played by Joel Aroeste and John Romeo’s Uncle Willie was delicious. All three play together so well that their relationships were entirely convincing; it almost felt as though the NYSTI people went out and found an actual family to slip into these roles.
Susan Cicarelli Caputo did a wonderful job with the role of photographer Elizabeth Imbrie and Matthew DaCapua was an excellent Alexander Lord, Tracy’s brother. The rest of the cast, including John McGuire and Carole Edie Smith, served well.
Duke Durfee’s set was attractive and appropriate as were all of Griffin’s costumes. His wedding dress presented a few problems for Hansen as odd pleats unraveled themselves into unattractive bumps at peculiar and inappropriate moments. John McLain provided appropriate lighting and the period music chosen by 100% Sound kept us grounded in the period of the play.
Don’t sit home thinking you know this play just because you know the movie. The brightness of this company and the wonderful work by director Bill Fortune who keeps everything moving, under control, and often unexpected make this a much better story than you would think you’d find at a Philadelphia wedding. RSVP not required.
The Philadelphia Story plays at the Schacht Fine Arts Center, Russell Sage College in Troy, New York through May 3. For schedules and tickets ($10-$20) call the box office at 518-274-3256.