Matthew Lombardo wrote this solo play about Katharine Hepburn specifically for Kate Mulgrew, who bears a physical and vocal resemblance to the Hartford, Conn.-born star. Indeed, playing Hepburn at her prime (age 30) in act one and aged and shaking in act two, Mulgrew gives a remarkable performance. She has all the experience and technique to hold the stage, and if her characterization occasionally topples over into caricature, it must be remembered that Hepburn herself sometimes indulged in self-caricature.
Already a popular hit for Hartford Stage (it’s been extended to March 10), “Tea at Five” is never less than utterly professional entertainment. But Lombardo’s script, though deft and polished, seldom gets below the Hepburn surface as it serves up her life story, most of which Mulgrew delivers directly to the audience.
The “loud and bossy” (even bitchy) veneer is seldom penetrated and, on the basis of act one, it’s possible to dislike Hepburn. The emotional heart of the play comes in the middle of act two when, sad and alone, Hepburn finally tells the traumatic story of her beloved older brother’s suicide at age 15 (Hepburn discovered his body). She goes on to reveal that suicide was a kind of family curse. The play needs to reveal more of Hepburn’s humanity and ease up on the brittle, bitchy comedy.
It takes place in the living room of the Hepburn “cottage” in Fenwick, Conn., on Long Island Sound. First act unfolds when Hepburn was home licking her wounds after seven flop films and a place of honor on the “box office poison” list. Curtain comes with the arrival of the script of “The Philadelphia Story,” which mightily revived Hepburn’s stage and screen careers.
Act two takes place shortly after Hepburn had a car accident in which she broke an ankle. It’s supposed to be 1983, yet Mulgrew’s brilliantly aged Hepburn looks older than she would have been at that time, and her phone conversations with Warren Beatty are about appearing in the film “Love Affair,” which was made in 1994. (Lombardo occasionally plays loosely with dates and facts here and elsewhere.)
The aged Hepburn wears Spencer Tracy’s red sweater over her shoulder, cueing reminiscences about her nearly 30-year affair with tortured Spence. The play nears its end with a montage of bits and pieces of scenes from Hepburn’s life, plays and films (including snippets of Shakespeare) in an attempt to cover elements that hadn’t been covered elsewhere. Unfortunately, Lombardo delivers about three false endings in place of one satisfying one.
Mulgrew and director John Tillinger appear to have worked closely together to give the production life and movement. And Tony Straiges has designed a cozily realistic living-room setting.
Overall, Lombardo and Mulgrew have done a fine job of capturing the public Hepburn, but they’ve had less success with the private one. That may well be just how Hepburn, who continues to live in fragile health at the Fenwick cottage, would want it.