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Tea at Five

Kate Mulgrew, who scored Off Broadway in this one-woman chronicle about Katharine Hepburn, becomes a convincing "Katharine of Arrogance" at the Pasadena Playhouse, but her technically immaculate renditions of the star's gestures and vocal mannerisms don't capture Hepburn's radiance and sensitivity.

Katharine Hepburn - Kate Mulgrew

Kate Mulgrew, who scored Off Broadway in this one-woman chronicle about Katharine Hepburn, becomes a convincing “Katharine of Arrogance” at the Pasadena Playhouse, but her technically immaculate renditions of the star’s gestures and vocal mannerisms don’t capture Hepburn’s radiance and sensitivity. Matthew Lombardo’s uneven script too often emphasizes nonessential details and gives short shrift to the meat of the material.

When red-headed Mulgrew first appears, in gabardine slacks and sweater, her immediate concern is to rope the role of Scarlett O’Hara, and she hammers away on the phone at agent Leland Hayward to get it for her. She elicits laughs by bashing Bette Davis, another contender (“There isn’t a camera lens in Hollywood that could make that woman look 25”), but the “Gone With the Wind” casting contest is too familiar to be a compelling issue.

Mulgrew is more successful at projecting the pain behind her stiff upper lip when reviewing the seven flop films that led to exhibitors branding her box office poison. She makes us grasp the outrage and pride that trigger her refusal to do something as mundane as “Mother Carey’s Chickens” (“I work with people — not poultry”), as well as a burning zeal to excel and satisfy a physician father who “wasn’t tickled” about her desire to be an actress.

A major problem is the jarring switch from act one, set in 1938 and primarily presenting Hepburn as down-on-her-luck, to 1983, where she appears elderly and incapacitated by Parkinson’s-type symptoms. Her glory days are made to seem almost irrelevant.

Also, Lombardo’s script waits until the last half-hour to handle Hepburn’s relationship with Spencer Tracy, with specific references and stories about their eight movies and overall screen partnership nearly absent.

Hepburn and Tracy, as these final scenes prove, had a bumpy road over the course of their 27 years together. Tracy, a guilt-ridden alcoholic, was frequently unfaithful, and enjoyed putting his powerfully independent lover in her place, shouting, “Don’t EVER interrupt me again,” or, “Take that feather out of your ass when you talk to me.” Hepburn insists she adored him in spite of this treatment, but the spectator can’t feel that love without comprehension of their creative bond.

A collaboration that began with “Woman of the Year” (1942), flourished with “Adam’s Rib” (1949) and “Pat and Mike” (1952) and concluded with “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” (1967) gave their love depth, and their artistic mutual admiration compensated for their personal clashes. By skating over this professional connection, the continuity feels as though something vital has been chopped out.

Instead of focusing on other frequent co-stars, such as Cary Grant, there’s a running 1983 telephone dialogue with Warren Beatty about whether she should do his film “Love Affair.” This ongoing debate actually occurred in 1993, not ’83. More harmful than such excessive dramatic license is the fact that “Love Affair” was a dismal failure, and Hepburn’s excruciating perf in it painfully below her usual standard. When she accepts the role with a climactic, exultant “Yes!” certifying her as a survivor against time and misfortune, the uplift has a phony quality.

Mulgrew occasionally abandons her strenuous histrionics, calming down enough to wring pathos from an episode describing her teenage brother’s suicide and the lingering dramatic impact it had on her life. There’s also a haunting sequence when Hepburn recalls her mother’s tears and her father’s icy disdain for this show of emotion, a disgust so total that neither parent ever mentioned the lost child again.

What comes across in “Tea at Five” is a tough, neurotic cookie who happily wears 4-inch heels to intimidate movie moguls, a fighter who sweepingly declares she wouldn’t change a “God damn thing” about her life. The magical creature who hypnotizes with a whisper in “Holiday” and “Alice Adams” is missing.

Tea at Five

Pasadena Playhouse; 688 seats; $58 top

Production: A Pasadena Playhouse presentation of a play in two acts by Matthew Lombardo. Directed by John Tillinger.

Crew: Sets, Tony Straiges; costumes, Jess Goldstein; lighting, Kevin Adams; sound, John Gromada; production stage manager, Christine Catti. Opened, reviewed Aug. 30, 2005; runs through Oct. 2. Running time: 1 HOUR, 50 MIN.

Cast: Katharine Hepburn - Kate Mulgrew

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