Kate Mulgrew as the youngKatharine Hepburn in Tea at Five
Kate Mulgrew as the young
Katharine Hepburn in Tea at Five
It's impossible to attend Tea at Five, Matthew Lombardo's look-in on Katharine Hepburn during a rainy afternoon in 1938 and then on a snowy afternoon in 1983, without wondering how the subject herself might react. After all, this is the woman who apparently dropped old friend Garson Kanin when he published Tracy and Hepburn: An Intimate Memoir in 1971. (Used copies are available through amazon.com, as are copies of Hepburn's 1991 Me: Stories of My Life.) This is the woman who has made no bones throughout a fabulous stage and film career about her low regard for invasion of privacy. Indeed, when a doorbell rings late in Lombardo's proceedings, he has Hepburn ask, "Why do you suppose people find the words 'Private Property' so damn intriguing?"

Kate Mulgrew, playing Hepburn after seven years as Captain Kathryn Janeway on Star Trek: Voyager, is on record as suspecting that the woman whom she's impersonating would be sanguine about the show. "Not bad," Mulgrew thinks Hepburn would snap. Playwright Lombardo may not be quite so certain; in preparing this peek through the keyhole, he reportedly didn't consult the great Kate or anyone who might speak for her now that she's about to be 96 and no longer seems to do much speaking for herself. (Presumably, this means that Lombardo hasn't lifted excerpts from Me but turned instead to press clips and television interviews, such as Hepburn's famous 1969 chat with Dick Cavett.)

But Hepburn might actually say something a lot more caustic than "Not bad" in rating this depiction of her fabled life. During the course of the 80-minute piece, the Hepburn character reveals precious little about herself that goes beneath the surface of her tough, doctor's-daughter skin. In the 1938 segment, Lombardo marches out a Hepburn who isn't so much independent in Hollywood as she is conniving, petty, bitchy, and Bette Davis-baiting. She's terribly proud of herself for being above the crowd and angry that she isn't better understood and appreciated.

Having repaired to Fenwick -- a New England retreat that the Hepburns owned for decades -- after being labeled "box-office poison," this furious Kate is frequently on the telephone, desperately attempting to land the part of Scarlett O'Hara in Gone With the Wind. In between harangues on that subject, she recalls breaking into show business and tells tales about such acquaintances as singer and speech coach Francis Robinson Duff, Louella Parsons (whom she detests and who detests her), and John Barrymore (whom she got to like quite a bit when they were filming her 1932 break-through flick, A Bill of Divorcement). But she repeatedly returns to obsessing over that elusive role in the film adaptation of Margaret Mitchell's blockbuster novel of the old South, upbraiding and then apologizing to her agent Leland Hayward for his failing assault on David O. Selznick.

Yet, upon learning that she has lost the part of Scarlett to the unknown Vivien Leigh, Lombardo's Hepburn is despondent for about a minute -- that is, until a package arrives from old pal and onetime lover Howard Hughes. As anyone familiar with Hepburn's return-to-the-screen strategies will guess, Hughes has sent her the script to Philip Barry's Philadelphia Story, the vehicle with which the actress revived her popularity. (As Lombardo has it, the parcel is a surprise and has nothing to do with Hepburn's machinations. A likely story!)

Lombardo is more probing in the 1983 segment, when his Hepburn, at 76, has changed from an ivory pants suit to the casual boating togs that the eccentric star later favored (costumes by Jess Goldstein). Here she has doffed the stiff, red wig that Paul Huntley designed for the first act and instead is sporting a more convincing gray upsweep. Getting about with a cane after an automobile accident that she refuses to accept is related to her Parkinson's disease, Hepburn -- by now a four-time-Oscar winner -- talks candidly about her unmitigated love for brother Tom, who hanged himself at 15, and her love-hate relationship with her upstanding urologist father.

She also gets around, finally, to Spencer Tracy, explaining that she was addicted to the incomparable actor -- almost as addicted as he was to alcohol -- but that she couldn't deny his occasional mean streaks. During this half of Lombardo's at-home-with-Kate, she's still on the phone repeatedly but no longer angling for a part; on the contrary, she's saying no to Warren Beatty, who wants her to return to the screen. Presumably, they're discussing Love Affair, though that remake didn't come out till 1994.

Despite the fact that Lombardo only scratches the surface of Hepburn's life, Tea at Five isn't without appeal. The play's primary attraction is Mulgrew's spectacular performance, directed with plenty of oomph and activity by John Tillinger. (He's aided by the homey set design of Tony Staiges, the lighting of Kevin Adams, and the sound and original music of John Gromada). Because Mulgrew is so good at looking and sounding like the real Hepburn, the actress goes a long way towards keeping her new star trek from deteriorating into star dreck. Of course, the facial resemblance is something that nature provided -- the wide mouth and the square jaw line. Mulgrew's body is stockier, less willowy than Hepburn's, but the vocal imitation is uncanny; she's got the Connecticut lockjaw down as well as the distinctive cadences. In the second act, she sometimes overdoes the Parkinson's disease business, but she looks right when putting her hand under her chin as Hepburn started to do by way of steadying her shakes. Mulgrew also does the lip-trembling weepiness that eventually became a Hepburn trademark.

The more questionable appeal of Tea at Five is Hepburn's nastiness, as Lombardo plays it up. It's amusing, but also somewhat degrading, to see and hear great ladies of the silver screen behave like caricatures as they trash their friends and family. There's the whiff of a drag act here, as there often is with this kind of enterprise: A strong and colorful woman is simultaneously celebrated and mocked. That may not have been intended by the author -- whose most recent New York theatrical credit was his direction of End of the World Party, about a bunch of gay men sharing a house on Fire Island -- but the fragrance still infuses the air like the aroma of tea at five.