Philip Barry’s “The Philadelphia Story” was and is primarily a vehicle for a cast of strong, charismatic performers — most famously Hartford’s own Katharine Hepburn, who starred in the Broadway original and re-created her role on film. The current Hartford Stage improves after a rather weak first act, but there’s a lack of glamour and chemistry in too many roles.
The production does have an attractive Tracy Lord in Suzanne Cryer. She wisely doesn’t attempt to emulate Hepburn, and inhabits her role nicely. She handles her drunk scene happily and really blossoms at the end.
If only Christopher Duva’s Dexter, Tracy’s first husband, had more to offer her; in this production he’s a boy sent out to do a man’s job, a fact made worse by costume designer Toni-Leslie James, who makes him look like someone in his older brother’s hand-me-downs. (James has clothed the women splendidly, particularly Tracy in slinky satins, but she has let the men down badly, too often making them look like spivs or gangsters.)
The comparatively small role of Dexter needs an actor of considerable stage presence and romantic chemistry to fill it out. Duva isn’t right for the role, and so it seems far likelier for Tracy to accept Mike Connor’s offer of marriage than to remarry Dexter.
As magazine writer Connor, Thomas Jay Ryan works well with Cryer and with Elizabeth Hanly Rice as press photographer Liz. While too many members of the cast were orating their lines in the first act, Rice’s laid-back performance was most welcome. Pamela Payton-Wright is one of the orating offenders as Tracy’s mother, though she’s always a complete pro and looks just right.
As younger Lord daughter Dinah, Michelle Petterson is suitably bratty, while Brandon Demery as Tracy’s and Dinah’s brother Sandy has to battle a first-act suit that makes him look like a gigolo.
Christopher Wynkoop comes on strong, sometimes too strong, as horsy, bottom-pinching Uncle Willy, and William Westenberg is suitably big and stolid as Tracy’s not-to-be second husband George. One of the most effective performances, stiff-neck and all, is delivered by Jack Gilpin as Tracy’s father. He really does embody Philadelphia’s privileged Main Line.
Jim Youmans has designed two impressive sets. The living room is all soaring white over an inlaid-tile floor backed by French windows and dressed with grand piano, harp and gleaming silver. For the outdoor second act the tiled floor’s central circle is raised slightly and trees, bushes and giant classical statues are wheeled on. (But where are the geraniums Tracy refers to?)
Director David Warren has kept his production moving briskly but must take some of the blame for allowing too much noisy business to trample Tracy’s last lines, in which she speaks so lovingly about going through with the interrupted wedding ceremony.