For Richer, For Poorer
There's truth in laughter, and there should be a lot more of both in The Philadelphia Story.
Thursday, August 29, 2002
Photo by Richard Green.
Photo: Headache Again-Spoiled rich kid Tracy Lord (Teresa McGettigan) must chose her man.
Philip Barry''s The Philadelphia Story, now playing at The Western Stage, is one of the American theater''s enduring comedic triumphs. The play is set on the Main Line, the tony suburbs of Philadelphia where a house of fewer than ten bedrooms is a cottage. Yet what Barry captured perfectly is that mixed in with this privilege is the yearning toward the Quaker values of William Penn: simplicity and a life of meaningful service to someone.
Tracy Lord, the show''s lead character, is brilliant, beautiful, witty and wealthy, and tomorrow she is going to be married. Her fiance, George Kittredge, is up from the bottom, the miner who made it to management. Tracy abhors publicity, but she is blackmailed into allowing a reporter and a photographer from a national gossip magazine to attend her wedding. It is either this or see her father''s affair with a young dancer plastered on the cover of the same magazine. Into the mix comes Tracy''s first husband, C. K. Dexter Haven. It is from him that we learn Tracy''s real problem. Tracy may have beauty and brains, but she has no warmth or compassion. She must learn that "You can never be a first class human being until you learn to have some regard for human frailty." And isn''t that true for us all?
The Western Stage''s production has unfortunately fallen victim to the fallacy that nothing in high comedy can really matter. Dialogue that should bubble is leaden. Moments that should be explored are glossed over, and those that should be thrown away are pushed and forced.
In the pivotal role of Tracy, Teresa McGettigan flounders. When she should be reaching the deepest levels of introspection or discovering the ability to love, she is flat and lifeless. In the exquisitely written role of Liz Imbrie, Dawn Flood is so busy being cute that when her character says "I think I''m sweet," the audience can only respond, "We know you do." Jay Hudson, a slight man, is miscast as George Kittredge whom other characters refer to as "a tower" and "broad-shouldered." His second act costuming in an Eisenhower jacket, more appropriate to a Latin lothario than a social climbing businessman, is baffling.
Equally baffling is the blocking by director Sheryl Bailey Heath. The play is presented in the round, yet Heath insists on clumping her actors center stage where they can do nothing but obscure each other from the audience. Moments of climax are staged so that the faces of the actors are visible to less than a quarter of the house. Tracy''s line of dialogue revealing her greatest moment of love and passion is literally delivered offstage.
Several breaths of fresh air save the production. One is Ron Talbot playing C. K. Dexter Haven. Talbot is at ease and at home on stage and in his role. He is charming, witty, gracious, deliciously cutting, and deeply honest. It is no wonder that Tracy fell in love with him. Woody Taft is a wonderful Sandy Lord, somewhat dissolute but clearly desperate for a chance to matter in the world. Jack Rothery as Uncle Willie is most at home in the style of the play, finding the lightness of the comedy and the depth of the honesty in equal measure. His humor and goodwill bubble over. Paul Collett as writer Mike Connor is another who finds the honesty in his role to great advantage. He has an ever-present sardonic twinkle in his eye, just right for Connor.
The set by Lynne Willis provides an ideal environment. Lighting by Jim Hultquist is sensitively done.
As something of an apology for the actors, it needs to be said that comedy of manners is one of the most difficult forms of drama for the contemporary American actor to perform. Perhaps we have lost the ability to deliver believable dialogue at a lightning fast pace. Or perhaps, in this day and age when prurient comedy caters to the lowest common denominator, we''ve lost our understanding of wit. Or perhaps, as the 24-hour news channels replay over and over the tragedy du jour complete with every gritty detail of the true life confession, we have lost our appreciation for subtlety.
The Philadelphia Story plays at The Western Stage''s Studio Theater through Oct. 13.