by Matthew Lombardo
Directed by John Tillinger
Starring Kate Mulgrew
Hartford Stage at the Loeb Theatre
64 Brattle St., Harvard Sq. / (617) 547-8300

Reviewed by Will Stackman

One person biographical shows about show business celebrities have become a staple of the American Theatre scene. It was probably inevitable that Katherine Hepburn would be the subject of one, even though the indomitable Kate is still alive if not exactly kicking. And it is not surprising that Kate Mulgrew does a rather good impersonation of this icon of stage and screen. Unfortunately, Matthew Lombardo's derivative script is neither worthy of her efforts or of its source. Yet "Tea at Five", a derivative tabloid bio-play could well continue to be a success for all concerned, though it's hard to imagine anyone else doing it successfully down the road.

The evening is divided into two acts, which have reportedly been revised since last spring's run in Hartford. If so, the second has benefited the most. The first half remains a nonstop series of anecdotes interspersed by phone calls and obligatory posing. Lombardo seems to feel that dropping a name a minute is required for authenticity. None of the aspects of Hepburn's early life raised are explored in any detail, though few issues planted in the first act receive some closure in the second. The general impression is that the actress' persona is identical to that seen on stage or screen, and as tightly scripted, even when talking to herself -- or the audience.

The setting for the evening, executed with extreme realism by Tony Straiges, is the living room of the Hepburn country retreat on the Connecticut River in Saybrook. The fact that the couch faces the audience rather that the fireplace is acceptable stage convention. But the illusion becomes strained when, after the first histrionic phone conversation with her agent, Kate suddenly begins wisecracking to the audience. There's no transition and the act becomes increasingly fragmented . Simply changing the lighting doesn't help. It's clear that getting the role of Scarlett O'Hara would salvage her failing movie career, but there's no evidence that the actress has thought any further about the part. Hearing Hepburn doing a Southern accent with some dyed-in-the-wool Yankee comments on the book is only one of missed opportunity. Moreover, while the rain outside the window from the approaching storm is quite realistic - if distracting - uninterrupted electrical power and phone service is not. Another indication that the author hasn't really thought through the action.

But Mulgrew's acting tour de force, under John Tillinger's exacting direction, which has her roaming about the set even in the half with a cast on one leg, carries the evening. There's something odd about someone impersonating a person whose life was focused on interpreting various characters through her own personality. It was always "Katherine Hepburn as.." and in this show, it still is. But what that might imply is barely explored. Instead, the play skips from anecdote to anecdote, enough to satisfy the movie fans at least, though theatre buffs might have want more than "calla lilies." The current crop of movie stars playing Broadway and the West End have a long way to go to match a stage career stretching from 1928 to 1981.

Audience members with only a casual interest in either Kate will find the whole effort curiously empty. Jess Goldstein's costumes and uncredited makeup and hair design transform Kate Mulgrew just enough, though "Capt. Janeway"s Star Trek fans will remember much more elaborate makeups from that show, but here's something missing. It's not in the impersonation , nor in the highly competent acting underneath, but in the lack of analysis. Even in the second act, where a 70 year old woman recovering from an auto accident probably caused by her increasing palsy, again sits alone in her family retreat, the material is thin and fragmented, still more gossip than biography. Lombardo doesn't get much beyond his experience in soap opera or with telling tales about his Provincetown neighbors. Neither act has a climax, merely a moment of recognition, requiring that the audience make a connection to real events in Hepburn's life. And in the second there's no mention of "In Golden Pond", her last major triumph on two years earlier.

Yet, for all its annoying lapses, the show is worth seeing. And as long as Mulgrew's voice and patience last, may well be on the boards somewhere. Though, if her husband does become governor of Ohio, she may be able to bow out gracefully for a while. It would be wise, however, before planting this project on Broadway, to have its structure and content overhauled by someone with a real sense of drama, and maybe just a little more sympathy for how hard it actually was to be Kate Hepburn the icon.

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