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Tea at Five Now Served at the Pasadena Playhouse
Okay, it's true confessions time. We've been waiting for Tea at Five, the one-woman play about the life of Katharine Hepburn, to hit the west coast for over two years now. We took our seat in the lovely and historic Pasadena Playhouse opening night, practically biting our nails in nervous anticipation. After all, it seems to take a Kate (or a Cate) to play the Great Kate, and we were ready to see Mulgrew tread the boards in shoes that could be too big to step in to. Tea at Five takes place at Fenwick, the Hepburn family's second home in Old Saybrook, Connecticut, the first act one stormy eve in 1938, and the second act in 1983. The two acts are almost as disparate as the decades they represent, and stikingly so. Mulgrew bears a fair resemblance to Hepburn the younger; what she lacks in physical proximity (she's shorter and more voluptuous, certainly) she tries to make up with prancing and posing. While it's in an effort to capture the boundless energy and athleticism of the outspoken star, at times it is distracting and a tad bit far-fetched. Act one plays like a frantic highlight reel of Hepburn's trials and tribulations: she's considered "box office poison" after a series of flops, she's not in the running to play Scarlett O'Hara, her brother Dick has penned an inflammatory play, she's turned down a Mr. Hughes' proposal, and there's a hurricane a-comin'. Granted, all of these moments are absolutely historically accurate (though perhaps not on the table all in the same day), but many of the more so-called intimate insights are full of invention and error. The fault lies not in Mulgrew's bold and daring performance, but in Matthew Lombardo's try-hard script; surely if his aim was to uncover the secret thoughts of "Katharine of Arrogance" he would have studied the same material that any devoted fan would have. Certainly the objections of Hepburn's extended family did not gain him access into any top-secret material, and some of his liberties, such as the convoluted tale of her first lover Luddy, border on offensive. It seems Lombardo put the 1993 All About Me videotape on a loop and copied down Kate's witticisms as fast as he could type--the cleverest lines were all written or said by Hepburn herself.
Granted, the average theatre patron won't have much advance knowledge of Hepburn's life, and much like the manner in which we enthusiastically enjoyed a biopic like last year's Ray, we assume the audience won't notice the discrepancies. What they want is delivered most in the second act, when Kate as Kate in her 70s takes the stage and an audible gasp flutters through the room. Mulgrew's older Kate is eerily close to the real Kate, and minus the endless mouth twitching lampooning, goes so close to reality that one might think the real Kate was talking. But of course, this talking raises another issue: who is she talking to? Mulgrew addresses the audience, but who is meant to beyond that fourth wall is uncertain, and we are witnesses to monologuing, phone calls, and off-stage door deliveries. The older Kate was more eager to sit down and story tell, but Kate in 1938 was notoriously press-shy and probably did not have the rationale that time and distance afforded her in order to discuss and confront the issues that Lombardo has her chatting so freely about. The audience wants dirt, and dirt is delivered: the shock of the "Hepburn curse" and the suicide of her brother and other family members causes a stir, and heads nod when Kate talks about her 27 year affair with Spencer Tracy. Does Lombardo get inside Kate's head like he claims to? No, not even close. Is Mulgrew a good Kate Hepburn? Yes, for the most part, though her director has pushed her to approach at times what plays as an overblown caricature and send-up. Does Hepburn's life make for a good play? Yes, most certainly, the material is compelling. Better to see it less informed; the fact that Warren Beatty's wooing of Hepburn for a part in Love Affair comes a good ten years after the second act's 1983 won't bother someone who doesn't know otherwise. But definitely better to see it than not. The Pasadena Playhouse is a marvelous theatre, and Tea at Five an endeavor worth supporting, if only to applaud Mulgrew's nerve and stamina to tackle the entirety of this show.
Tea at Five runs until October 2 at the Pasadena Playhouse, 39 South El Molino Avenue, Pasadena. (626) 356-PLAY (Box Office). Tickets are $48-$58. Photo by Carol Rosegg.