By Matthew Lombardo
Starring Kate Mulgrew
Directed by John Tillinger
Promenade Theatre 2162 Broadway at 76th Street / (212) 580-1313

Reviewed by David Spencer

When Kate Mulgrew first appeared as Captain Janeway on "Star Trek: Voyager", there were any number of people who noted the similarity of her voice to that of Kathryn Hepburn, and indeed, it’s a rich deep voice that sits in a similar register, and as well a voice that commands attention.

So you have to applaud Captain Janeway, er, I mean Ms. Mulgrew, for having not only the nerve, but the sense of humor and self-awareness to actually play Ms. Hepburn in the one woman show "Tea at Five".

The question is whether or not Ms. Mulgrew’s spunk can triumph over the fact that Matthew Lombardi’s play is a very ordinary affair, not really up to the spark of its subject or star.

The play, set in her Connecticut family estate, focuses on two key moments in Hepburn’s life: The first, when she was a self-involved 31, having been dubbed box office poison, waiting out the news of whether or not she would get the vied-for role of Scarlet O’Hara in you-know-what; and the second, at the age of 85, as she is recovering from a near-fatal car accident, her career more prestigious now than before—but of less consequence next to other matters, such as somehow resolving the emotional loose ends of a difficult family life…and of a 30-year love affair with "Spence," in which Mr. Tracy, never willing to divorce his wife, seemed no more capable of appreciating her full worth than her suppressive father. Yet she is haunted by having helplessly courted the approval of both. However, the self-absorption does not wallow in self-pity as much as the kind of denial that lets such situations perpetuate—so Hepburn is feisty enough to wrench herself out of the dumps and still regale us with peppery anecdotes.

But one does wonder why.

There seems no compelling reason for her to break the fourth wall and confess all to us, to acknowledge our presence in a domestic sanctum that is supposed to be her shelter, other than to give the actress a means by which to reminisce—and that lackadaisical conceptualization is likewise reflected in content: the text seems a casual gloss on public and published material. I don’t know if a better one-woman piece about Ms. Hepburn could be devised—if the story of her life could possibly give rise to something more compelling by way of theatrical confessional—but one does want to believe…

However, if the play is uninspired, at least the performer is not. With the savvy application of makeup and the devastatingly intelligent and comprehensive grasp of her craft that is her signature, Ms. Mulgrew evokes Hepburn in a manner that is positively uncanny, from the youth and dash of the younger to the physically shaky orneriness of the older. As exceptional is that she manages to "make Hepburn her own"; Mulgrew the person is sublimated, but Mulgrew the artist is very much in evidence, rarely distracting from the verisimilitude she means to create (except, unavoidably, in those opening act moments in which the audience reacts to the transformation and becomes secure with the sturdiness of the portrayal). And she always supports the material even when it doesn’t optimally support her, which is often.

In the end, then, "Tea at Five" is one of those odd-bird evenings in which the event is of more moment than the actual material. Which may be fitting in some karmic, metaphorical way. Ms. Hepburn was always an odd bird herself…

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