The Philadelphia Story

Wenzel Jones takes a look at a revival of Philip Barry’s classic comedy.

Hugh O'Gorman, Alison Eastwood, and Briant Wells in The Philadelphia Story
Hugh O’Gorman, Alison Eastwood,
and Briant Wells in The Philadelphia Story

The script for The Philadelphia Story was born of privilege: Katharine Hepburn needed a vehicle, playwright Philip Barry was a friend of the family, he used her family as the model, etc. And it may be privilege that is sinking the current production at the Court Theatre. But more on that later.

The play hinges upon the high society wedding of Tracy Lord (Alison Eastwood), to which the tabloid magazine Destiny is given exclusive coverage rights in order to keep some dirt on Tracy’s father out of the same fine publication. Dad (H.M. Wyant) may or may not make the nuptials, while Tracy’s ex-husband Dexter (Hugh O’Gorman), whom she deserted for reasons of physical abuse, lives just across the way. O’Gorman is almost too suave to be perceived as a cad; on the other hand, he makes the whole uncomfortable subplot of “did-he-hit-her-and-if-he-did-did-she-like-it?” almost palatable. Tracy’s fiancé this second time around–a booming presence as embodied by Tom Kiesche–can’t figure out the curious family.

In the meantime, brother Sandy (Ben Livingston, in a performance of admirable energy) has become obligated to invite a couple of his Fourth Estate friends, Liz and Mike, from his days on the staff of Destiny. Jill Remez couldn’t be better as the hardened photographer Liz, cynical about the ways of love, while Briant Wells has an irresistible, gangly charm as reporter Mike (although his decision to emulate Cary Grant seems odd).

Claudette Nevins is perfection as Tracy’s mother, Margaret Lord; she seems born to the exquisitely tasteful (if cramped) set by John Iacovelli, a shrine to understated, WASP-y good taste. And there’s certainly no argument to be found with Lynsey Bartilson, who has spunk to spare as Tracy’s precocious sister.

The cast is rounded out by John Bliss as the lecherous Uncle Willie and Henry Selvitelle as the understated manservant, Thomas. There is a lot of fun to be found in the way the family plays up to the press, about whom they are supposed to feign ignorance, and in the contrasting perspectives of the haves and the have-nots on the phenomenon of unearned wealth. Barry’s script, while certainly dated, makes observations that are simultaneously trenchant and amusing.

Shon LeBlanc has run up some lovely costumes, except for Dexter’s first jacket (ghastly and uncomfortable looking) and Tracy’s meet-the-press frock (which bears an unfortunate resemblance to an unsuitable wedding dress). Director Jules Aaron moves things along as best he can, considering that Iacovelli’s opulent set practically forces everyone into a straight line downstage during the interior sequences.

And then there’s Tracy. I may be going out on a limb here, but I’ll just bet that Ms. Eastwood didn’t have to audition for this part. And if she did, then shame on Mr. Aaron. Her performance is a one-note sneer with no sense of fun or fire whatsoever. Perhaps she was making a conscious effort not to imitate the Main Line accents of her most famous predecessors in this role, Hepburn and Grace Kelly, but I don’t know that unmitigated nasality is an improvement. Those delightfully anachronistic catch phrases– “Oh suds!” is my favorite–don’t sound remotely natural coming from Eastwood. We are left with the rather sad spectacle of everybody acting their buns off around the leading lady, who just sits there. I cannot guess whether Eastwood is simply miscast or generally incapable, having never seen her work before.

Otherwise, the production is fine. But a play like this depends heavily on the charm of the leading character, and here, alas, there is none.

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