Philip Barry’s The Philadelphia story is old-fashioned comedy, in three short acts, which is how it is done in this production. Yesterday evening, the cast threw away as many lines and jokes as got a laugh, but the audience did laugh enough that I think the star names, the memory of two movies and word of mouth will keep the box office in the black for the projected 3 month run.
However, under the leaden hand of much awarded American Director Jerry Zaks, this frothy meringue of a play about Philadelphia high society, written with the lightest of touches by Barry at the eve of WWII, has become a solemn comment on class relations. In Barry’s play, old money has the last laugh at the expense of the self-made bourgeois prude, but it’s harmless and funny. Somehow, this lightness of touch is lost in Kevin Spacey’s latest offering in the Old Vic season. This matters because the values of the bourgeois prude have held America in their grip from the end of WWII to the present day.
Katherine Hepburn was at a turning point in her career when she brought Barry’s play to Broadway in 1939. Rejected by Hollywood, because her films didn’t earn enough money, she went back East to prove herself, and prove herself she did. Smart enough to buy the film rights, she never looked back. Not bad for an actress essentially playing herself. That is a major part of the problem with this production. Jennifer Ehle who plays the Hepburn role of Tracy Lord is a very pretty, buxom English actress, but she isn’t whippet thin; she has the soft round face of a country girl, and she doesn’t look in any way like old Philadelphia money. Zaks has her speak her lines out to the audience in a flat, dated performance that has little to do with the other actors on the stage. Adding insult to injury, Costume Designer Tom Rands has dressed her in a series of the most unflattering frou-frou frocks that no self-respecting between the wars debutant would have been caught dead in. Strangely, Julia McKenzie as the heiress’ mother also exhibits a complete lack of sartorial elegance where Lauren Ward as Liz Imbrie, a gossip magazine photographer whose impoverished state is referred to in the play, is considerably more expensively and beautifully dressed than either of them. What is a girl to do when the director and the designer are working against you?
There can’t be many readers who don’t know the plot of The Philadelphia Story from the 1940 film with Hepburn, Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart, and the musical version in 1956 with Grace Kelly, Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra. In brief, the son of an old society family deflects the attentions of a gossip magazine away from his philandering father by promising them an exclusive on the 2nd marriage of his sister, Tracy. The sister’s first marriage was brief. Judgemental, prudish and not very grown up, she threw away a terrific man, and is about to marry a drip. Her kid sister, through various machinations, manages to get rid of the new man, and put her sister back together with the first husband. The gossip writer and photographer get involved in the machinations, and everyone lives happily ever after.
Thank heaven for Julia McKenzie who, as the mother of the bride, rises above her dire costumes and the pedestrian set by John Lee Beatty and shows us that comic timing is everything. Nicholas Le Prevost as Uncle Willy is deliciously wicked and very funny as the reprobate uncle who drinks and pinches bottoms to excess. Lauren Ward’s Liz Imbrie utters her endless supply of wisecracks with just the right amount of fed-up charm. She also looks a lot like Celeste Holm who played the part in High Society. Spacey is drôle and languid and seems to have directed himself. The rest of the cast play their parts well with the exception of American actor DW Moffett, who shouts his lines out to someone at the rear of the dress circle with little regard to the other people on the stage.
The very talented Kevin Spacey’s American experiment at the Old Vic is an interesting one. Jerry Zaks has a George Abbot Award (now there was real talent) for Lifetime Achievement in the Theatre. John Lee Beatty is a member of the Theatre Hall of Fame. Why does their talent fall so flat over here? And more to the point, why do the Americans dole out this endless stream of silly awards? Their talent should be obvious, which, in this production, it most certainly isn’t.
That said, the audience laughed, which has to be the gauge of how successful a show is going to be. This reviewer laughed a few times, but mainly sat stony faced and bemused. Mind you, George Cukor directed the 1940 film. The script was not written by Barry, and was an improvement on the original. The film was, like Casablanca, just about perfect.