BWW Reviews: Theatre Memphis Brings THE PHILADELPHIA STORY South
George Cukor's 1940 film version of Philip Barry's THE PHILADELPHIA STORY was Katharine Hepburn's return to glory after the actress had been labeled "box office poison" after the failure of several films. The savvy Hepburn was able to bend MGM to her will when it wanted to film Barry's play, and the end result rewarded everyone involved: Hepburn, her old RKO co-star Cary Grant, and the up and coming James Stewart. Not only were Oscar nominations and wins in store, but at the center of it all was Hepburn in all her patrician, high cheek-boned elegance. She may have given greater performances as the tragic, dope-addicted "Mary Tyrone" in the film version of Eugene O'Neill's LONG DAY'S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT or as the caustic, sparring "Eleanor of Aquitaine" in James Goldman's THE LION IN WINTER, but for those who want to see Hepburn at the height of her unusual beauty and comedic gifts, THE PHILADELPHIA STORY is a must. Having seen the film numerous times, I was wary of Theatre Memphis' staging of Barry's work. THE PHILADELPHIA STORY, once seen, leaves such an impression that it's rather like tackling a remake of THE WIZARD OF OZ or GONE WITH THE WIND or THE GODFATHER. Director Jason Spitzer has taken the dare, and he and his cast have mostly succeeded in the satiny, stylized production currently playing at Theatre Memphis.
To be sure, Barry's scintillating, frothy creation shares many similarities with the best romantic drawing room comedies. There's something "out of reach" for most of the audience - as Mr. Spitzer himself has observed, the privileged set preparing for the wedding of moneyed "Tracy Lord" to the stuffy, self-made "George" has a fascination not alien to that of the omnipresent Kardashians (though usually the appearance of any of that family on my television sends me scrabbling for my remote). As a play, PHILADELPHIA oddly recalls the comedies of Noel Coward and falls somewhere between SHE STOOPS TO CONQUER (less slapstick) and THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST (less wit) - there seems, in fact, to be something almost British about it. Certainly, the great comedies of the 1930's and early 40's usually paired an heiress with an "average Joe," suggesting that money doesn't buy happiness; and in the near-romance between Tracy and the young newspaperman assigned to cover the story, the play would have followed the template set by comedies like Frank Capra's IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT. However, what helps to distinguish Barry's script is that it takes unexpected turns; poor "George," the "self-made man," will have to cede Tracy to her ex-, the smitten newshound "Macaulay Connor" will have to have his romantic feelings rerouted (to the "second runner-up" "Liz," the acerbic photographer), and - surprise, surprise - the wealthy ex-husband, "C. K. Dexter Haven" (the very name would ordinarily anoint him a "twit") will claim the prize. Hmmm. There's a switch: In Barry's world, it's okay to have the "entire package" - money AND looks. In short, there are subtle allusions to class assumptions that make this a "social" play as well as a "romantic" one.
Mr. Spitzer has a distinctive flair for material like THE PHILADELPHIA STORY. Clearly, he knew that he was facing a challenge tackling material that seems "locked in" by time and place. This is a world that, for a younger generation addicted to SEINFELD or MODERN FAMILY, seems far removed. In fact, all the conversation about "Tracy the Virtuous Goddess" vs. "Tracy the Human Being" borders on the tiresome. From father to suitor to suitor, practically every male in the cast has a go at "defining" Tracy. Yet, the intelligent, literate dialogue; the stylized elegance; the witty performances - all contribute to a sophisticated entertainment that rises far above an Adam Sandler or Melissa McCarthy outing. That's not exactly undesirable.
The script for the film version dispenses entirely with the part of brother "Sandy" (played with charm here by Evan McCarley), and I think his absence and that of the subplot surrounding him tightened it a bit and made it play better. That said, there's still much to enjoy - from the jitterbugging staff to the precocious daughter (Carly Nahon's a particularly bright spot as the precocious little sister) to Tracy's parents and "Uncle Willie" (slyly rendered by James Dale Green in "mischief mode"). All of the young men in the play are well cast, and I know their work well enough to have spent some time during Intermission imagining them in each other's part. Kinon Keplinger wryly and coolly looks on as the patient "Dexter," Steven Brown subtly suggests the "prig" lurking inside the intended groom, and John Moore's poet/newshound enjoyably does a u-turn in his feelings about the "oh-so-toity" upper class he has come to cover. Aliza Moran, when she isn't avoiding the pinch marks left by "Uncle Willie," has a dry, Eve Arden-ish zing to her lines, and she shows true class in realizing that, in a romantic race with rival "Tracy," she need expend no energy getting out of the starting gate. Of course, Natalie Jones as "Tracy Lord" has some sleek slacks to fill; without imitating Hepburn, she is a close enough approximation to make the part work to her advantage. (I particularly like the chinks that appear in her moral armor when her flawed father "Seth," lovingly and truthfully played by Charles K. Hodges, offers an assessment of her; and a scene between an inebriated "Tracy" and "Mike" has both humor and sparks.)
Some plays seem to work better with the Theatre Memphis "crowd" than others, and judging from the warm laughter from Sunday's matinee, I think this is one of them. Mr. Spitzer moves it all along at a pleasant, spritely pace (you'll even enjoy the servants between acts); and the period music, typically brilliant costumes by Andre Bruce Ward, and St. Jude-Dream Home-Circa 1940-set by Jack Yates create a world of class and culture that would not be out of place on LIFESTYLES OF THE RICH AND FAMOUS. With the always welcome Jude Knight as Tracy's mother. Through May 10.