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Playwright pours ‘Tea’

Forms own shingle to tour Hepburn biog

NEW HAVEN, Conn. — It was a case of a playwright upsetting the touring tea cart.

When “Tea at Five,” the bioplay about Katharine Hepburn starring Kate Mulgrew, completed its Off Broadway run in July 2003, the show’s commercial producers started eyeing dates outside New York. After a four-month run in West Palm Beach, Fla., the producers started to assemble dates for a tour beginning in fall 2004.

But when playwright Matthew Lombardo learned that negotiations were proceeding without the producers securing the rights to his play or a contract with the star, he took matters into his own hands, formed a production company and now is taking the show and Mulgrew on the road, hitting some of the very cities the New York producers were planning to play.

The short tour just completed a week’s run in Hepburn’s hometown of Hartford, Conn., where the play received its world preem in 2002 at Hartford Stage. It will play Boston’s Shubert in December, Baltimore’s Hippodrome in January and Seattle Repertory Theater.

The tour, under the auspices of the newly formed Lombardo Organization and general manager Roger Alan Gindi, is capitalized at $150,000, according to the playwright, whose previous New York outings includes directing Off Broadway’s “End of the World Party,” “Mother and Child” and “Guilty Innocence,” the latter two his own work.

A more extensive tour for “Tea at Five,” which presents Hepburn at age 30 and 76, is eyed for the 2005-06 season.

“There were personality conflicts within the producing team,” says Lombardo of his original commercial producers, who included Daryl Roth, David Gersten, Paul Morer, Michael Filerman and Amy and Scott Nederlander. “I don’t think they ever totally agreed on a direction to take this play.”

Gersten says his group “allowed” the rights to produce the play to expire, although there were attempts to line up dates in Seattle and Boston.

“I was told the producers were abandoning the project,” says Benjamin Moore, managing director of Seattle Rep.

Producers sometimes put out feelers to see if there are enough feasible dates to launch a tour before spending money to option a show.

Gersten, who declined to be specific regarding details of the post-New York run of the show, says “Tea at Five’s” original producers will continue to participate in the tour’s profits.

In New York, the show received mixed notices for the play and generally glowing reviews for Mulgrew. Lombardo says he has continued to rework the show, which is directed by John Tillinger.

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