BWW Reviews: THE PHILADELPHIA STORY Is Smartly Told at Clackamas Rep
There used to be a genre of films and plays popular in the 1930s and 1940s that involved madcap rich people having wacky adventures. Sometimes a working-class person would get mixed up with them, and this would also cause hilarity to ensue. I supposed the last gasp of the style was 1981's original Arthur, with Dudley Moore as a wealthy, eccentric drunk and Liza Minnelli as the simple working girl he falls in love with. Today when we think of rich people's shenanigans, we're more likely to think of the Kardashians and the Duck Dynasty clan. But during the Depression, watching nutty heiresses sort out their complicated love lives was great fun.
The Philadelphia Story by Philip Barry is perhaps the quintessential example of the genre. The Lord family (note that last name) is touched by scandal when the father is seen in New York bankrolling a young dancer's attempt to triumph on Broadway. In an effort to avoid a tabloid expose, son Sandy invites a reporter and photographer to daughter Tracy's wedding. Tracy's been married before, to the playboy neighbor C.K. Dexter Haven, but that fizzled after less than a year. Now she's engaged to George, a coal mining executive, and the wedding looks to be the social event of the year. No one thinks Tracy's really suited for George, but she's planning to go through with the wedding. The reporter, Mike, has quite a few opinions of his own, and he and Tracy are instantly drawn to each other. (The photographer, Liz, is interested in Mike, but she's rather quiet about it.) Mike and Liz join the family for dinner and drinks the night before the wedding, and suddenly no one's sure who's going to end up with whom.
That's a brief version of the story. The actual plot is much more complex, and you almost need a scorecard to keep up with things. The characters are all quick to zap each other with witty one-liners, and some of the digs are truly smart. What they aren't, at least to modern ears, is funny. To audiences used to the quick, crude zingers of the sitcom age, Barry's genteel dialogue doesn't play the way it did in 1938, and most of the high-society quips don't feel as zany (or as shocking) as they must have when the play was originally produced. Under the able direction of Doren Elias, the actors all get the period feeling just right, and the wealthy family feels like a wealthy family - all upper-crust manners and comfortable ease with the fancy trimmings. But until some physical and romantic hijinks interrupt in Act Two, it's all just a little too quaint.
Clackamas Rep's production, however, is stunning. The set by Chris Whitten is gorgeous, a series of circles at various levels, giving the impression of a stately Main Line mansion, yet spare enough to give the characters room to maneuver. The back walls of the house, however, are absent, allowing us access to view the patio where the wedding will take place. Every piece of furniture, every prop, and every costume (huzzah to Margaret Louise Chapman) fits the period and the wealth of the characters, and there is always something to look at.
The performances are quite good, though the cast never feels completely at home with Barry's dialogue; it's a bit too tame for our ears, and the lines that must have felt like lacerating insults in 1938 are sweet nothings compared to lines from, say, Frasier or Modern Family. Hillarie Putnam, as Tracy, has the unenviable task of playing a role that everyone associates with Katharine Hepburn, and she's mostly successful. You like Tracy, despite her self-involved nature, and Putnam is able to make her seem privileged but not snobbish. Aislin Courtis, as her young sister Dinah, has a lot of fun meddling about in other people's business, and Cyndy Ramsey-Rier, as their mother, brings a noble bearing to her role. James Sharing housen is nimble and funny as brother Sandy, while Ernie Casciato is quite entertaining as uncle Willy. Rounding out the family is Jim Eikrem as father Seth, and he tries his best, but Seth is stuck with the moralizing lines in the play, and I don't think anyone could bring those scenes to life.
Among the visitors, Dennis Kelly tries to breathe humanity into George, but the character is written as a wooden stick, while Tom Walton gets all the wit necessary to make Dexter both fun and infuriating, though he doesn't have much chemistry with Putnam. Jayne Stevens works hard as Liz, who seems meant to be a tough-cookie Rosalind Russell type, but the playwright just doesn't give her much to work with, and her character's feelings for Mike are tough to play when they're only briefly mentioned. Jayson Shanafelt does terrific work as Mike; he seems most comfortable with the period style (and looks wonderful in a tux), and he's got great chemistry with Putnam, which makes the clinches between Mike and Tracy the liveliest part of the play. He's a trifle mature for the role, but his vocal skill makes up for it.
All in all, it's a glossily entertaining evening, and what's wrong with that? Don't expect a laugh riot. Think of it as a less lugubrious version of August: Osage County with much better costumes, and The Philadelphia Story will feel just right. And seriously - don't miss the set. That alone is worth the price of admission.