Tracy Lord suffers from “exceptionally high standards,” or so we’re told early in “The Philadelphia Story,” the Jerry Zaks production that brings the initial season of Kevin Spacey’s Old Vic regime to an uninspired end. Have standards been set too high for what remains a uniquely audacious experiment that might have sent many a more seasoned company leader packing some months back? Perhaps. And yet, far from concluding the inaugural lineup on a high, Zaks’ first staging to originate in Britain encases Jennifer Ehle’s delicious star turn in a sexless package, alternately sluggish and manic. The ever-demanding Tracy, one senses, would not approve.
This “Story” gets arguably the most difficult aspect of the equation right — finding a heroine who can hold her own in period comedy while banishing the punishing specter of Katharine Hepburn, the original Tracy on stage and screen.
Coming relatively late to a casting process that weighed numerous potential leading ladies, Ehle turns out to be the distinguishing feature of an evening that for the most part feels oddly desultory, as if the Anglo-American company had yet to establish its rhythm. (Play opened after a single week of previews, which is nothing compared to Broadway, where a largely recast “Story” will be seen next spring.)
A scenario dependent on inebriation gets off to a sober start, notwithstanding the Mendelssohn cues clearly intended to set up Philip Barry’s 1939 comedy of Philadelphia Main Line mores as its own midsummer night’s dream. Tracy is about to marry hubby No. 2, George Kittredge (Richard Lintern), when the bustling Lord household is further complicated by the unexpected arrival of two journalistic snoops, Mike Connor (D.W. Moffett) and Liz Imbrie (a shrill Lauren Ward), and by Tracy’s first husband, the jaunty C.K. Dexter Haven (Spacey, filling Cary Grant’s shoes from the 1940 film).
Though cast in a supporting role, Spacey obviously provides this production’s box office catnip: Small wonder there was considerable grousing when it was revealed the actor would abandon ship for seven weeks from June 18 to shoot the new “Superman” film. (He is due back for the final month of shows.)
Will Tracy do the expected and marry George, or will she be seduced anew by “Dext,” her onetime beau? The question gains in complexity during a drunken and giddy encounter with Mike, who jettisons his aspersions toward the Lord family haut monde long enough to admit he just may be falling in love with Tracy, the queen awaiting dethronement.
Watching with varying degrees of intrusiveness from the sidelines are Tracy’s little sister, Dinah (a terrifyingly precocious Talulah Riley); her jocund brother Sandy (Damien Matthews in a role eliminated from the film); and Tracy’s mother, Margaret (a tart Julia McKenzie), whose own domestic problems help grease the wheels of a mistaken-identity plot that never quite builds to the Feydeau-esque levels of farce promised near the outset.
In some ways, “Story” ought to be just the sort of vehicle British critics have been demanding all along from Spacey, who has been faulted for his choice of plays, whether European (the Dutch “Cloaca”) or American (“National Anthems”). An iconic slice of the American canon, “Story” hasn’t played the West End since 1948, while its interest in class — Mike’s ideological bugbear — should tally more in Britain than in the U.S.
The problem comes on the flesh-and-blood level that has everything to do not with playwright Barry’s gifts as social anatomist but with Tracy’s humanity, which to the world looks as if it has been sacrificed on the altar of appearances. (That said, John Lee Beatty’s sets for this moneyed menagerie could be a tad grander, while Tom Rand’s costumes — a peculiar puffed-sleeve number for Ehle, especially — come off as more eccentric than elegant.)
But how can we melt along with Tracy if the putative triangle of which she is the apex strikes so few sparks? Even more than his co-stars, virtually all of whom are a decade or more too old for their roles, Moffett transmits none of the insouciance someone like Robert Sean Leonard (Spacey’s co-star in “The Iceman Cometh” on Broadway) might have brought to the assignment. And while Spacey is tremendously funny as he darts about the living room, in the process redefining the phrase “lounge lizard,” he seems at some fundamental remove from the part, his ready-made irony and sardonic turns of phrase no replacement for the missing joy and pathos.
That leaves Ehle stranded in ways unknown to Tracy, which isn’t fair to an actress marking her return to the British stage after five years. In robust voice and with none of the archness that seems to inhabit some of the lines (it’s no cinch making remarks like “golly Moses” sound utterly casual), the actress gives us a so-called goddess winningly brought down to earth in a production that too rarely takes flight.