I don't know if I've ever experienced an intermission that seemed longer. Not that the interval at Tea at Five at Hartford Stage was any longer than usual; it's just that Kate Mulgrew was so great at portraying Katharine Hepburn in the first act that I couldn't wait to see what she would do in the second. I knew there would be a profound difference between the two, for in Act I of Matthew Lombardo's new one-person play it was September, 1938, and Hepburn was all of 29 years old, having tea at five in her cottage in Fenwick, Connecticut. Yet, as the program divulged, Act II would take place in the same cottage but in February, 1983, when Hepburn was nearing her 76th birthday.
Mulgrew was amazing in the first act, her performance not hindered by the fact that she bears more than a passing resemblance to the young Hepburn. This, of course, can only take an actress so far, even with the expert make-up and wig people that Hartford Stage obviously had on hand; but Mulgrew was extraordinary at replicating Hepburn's trademark voice, her tone dripping with irony when she was speaking through those de rigueur clenched teeth, yet she never stooped to parody. The "he-yuh" for "here" was here, as well as Hepburn's two distinctive ways of laughing: That little throaty "huh-huh-huh" and that full-out embarrassed bark of a laugh that she used to follow with a smile to gloss everything over.
On top of all this, Mulgrew got the young Hepburn's body language right: She sat down, tucked her legs under her, and punctuated a remark with the snap of a cigarette case. She jutted out her jaw before resting her elbow on the table and plopping her chin into her hand, all the while making direct eye contact with the audience. Through it all, she was marvelous.
The premise for the first act of the play is that Hepburn is waiting for the phone call that will tell her whether or not she's landed the plum role of Scarlett O'Hara in the upcoming Gone With the Wind movie. Alas, this does seem a little contrived, if not threadbare; as I don't have to tell you, tovarich, she didn't get the part. But sparks fly when Hepburn talks to producer Leland Heyward and refers to "that no-talent wife of yours"--the then-highly-regarded Margaret Sullavan--before describing gossip columnist Louella Parsons as a "menopausal hag." No wonder she herself had been called, as she fully admitted, "Katharine of Arrogance." Besides, by her own admission, she'd just endured six Hollywood flops and hadn't done much better on Broadway. (Ever hear of such plays as The Bride the Sun Shines On or The Lake? Hepburn wished she hadn't, either.) "Funny thing about being successful," she rues in the play: "You don't think you'll ever be unsuccessful again."
I couldn't help wondering if Mulgrew would be successful again when she attempted the elderly Hepburn, which is why that intermission seemed to last longer than some intermissionless productions I've seen in the past few weeks. The lights eventually did come up, though, on the same set but with a few different pieces of furniture to suggest the passage of time. Mulgrew was there but she had her back towards us as she stoked the embers in a fireplace. When she turned around, no longer was she wearing the stylish duds she had in Act I. Now, she had on a black turtleneck under a man's blue shirt, all topped by a red sweater with the sleeves tied in front. Now, her head and hands shook to portray the Parkinson's disease that Hepburn contracted after a car accident some years earlier. The grandiose gestures were still there, though no longer as effortless, but her chin was as high as an elephant's eye.
It's the retired Katharine Hepburn we see in Act II. (She says that what really made her stop working was a chance remark she heard after a screening The Corn Is Green, in which she played Miss Moffat: "God, she's old.") This act also revolves around a phone call--an unwanted one from Warren Beatty, who doggedly tries to lure her out of retirement. Lombardo has the lady look back more than forward and also has her examine "the Hepburn curse," which resulted in a more-than-average number of family members committing suicide. Not that the entire second act is dour; "I did a musical once," she tells us, without citing Coco by name. "My grandnephew said, 'It sucked.'"
Musical theater enthusiasts in attendance at Hartford Stage also enjoyed the story of Hepburn living next door to Stephen Sondheim and complaining when he was playing and singing too loud while trying out his newest creation, "You Could Drive a Person Crazy." Gee, I always heard it was "The Ladies Who Lunch," but Lombardo obviously took poetic license in order to stress that Sondheim was driving Hepburn crazy by incessantly rehearsing the song. "I tell that story a lot," Lombardo has Hepburn say. "Sondheim does, too, but differently, making me nicer." It was breathtaking when Mulgrew added: "I hate when people do that."
One thing Lombardo needs to do, though, is have the lady talk about not getting Gone With the Wind, given that he's made such a big point of it in the first act. Of course, he does have her discuss her lifelong love affair with Spencer Tracy. When Mulgrew as Hepburn conceded that Tracy already had a wife, she gave a fascinating look of, "So what? I admit it." When she conceded that she wouldn't change "a goddamned thing in her life," she got a big hand, of which I was proud to be a part.
Credit John Tillinger, too, for keeping the actress's eye on the straight and narrow, but Kate Mulgrew gets the compliment that you always hear from those who are impressed by one-person shows: After a while, you forget that you're not seeing the actual person being portrayed up there. "Somewhere inside this old broad is this young girl," Hepburn says in the play, "while somewhere inside this young woman is this old broad." Indeed, Mulgrew got both of them in both acts, simultaneously and consecutively.
Hartford is an ideal place for Tea at Five to enjoy its world premiere, because Hepburn was born there in 1907. The audience was glad to welcome home its most famous and favorite daughter and had a good laugh when she said that "No modern sophisticate reads the Hartford Courant," a publication that's still the paper of record in the state capital. Tea at Five closes this weekend, but I hope it's going to play in every place that's ever heard of Katharine Hepburn; Mulgrew, Lombardo, and Tillinger deserve no less.
[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org]