Playing a celebrity onstage is dangerous business, and when the object of portrayal is one of the most well-known and honored film actresses of all time, the stakes are even higher. If the actress playing the actress is also famous, but not known for doing work of the same depth, can anyone emerge unscathed?
You'll have to ask someone other than Kate Mulgrew. She's too busy being - not playing, being - screen legend Katharine Hepburn in Tea at Five at the Promenade Theatre. She originated the role at Hartford Stages last year and, after a few other stops, has burst onto the New York stage in an electrifying glow that should promise to catapult her career to the next level her seven year detour on Star Trek: Voyager never quite allowed.
She really is that good. From the moment she appears on Tony Straiges's set (the elegant Hepburn family Connecticut estate) in Jess Goldstein's smart blue and white costume, she commands attention. Mulgrew is a striking match for the young Hepburn (the first act takes place in 1938), in appearance, yes, but also in voice. Hearing her wrap her vocally golden Hepburn invocation around lines such as, "Funny thing about being successful - you never think you'll be unsuccessful again" or, when speaking of Bette Davis, "There isn't a camera lens in Hollywood that could make that woman look 25," are luscious treats.
The attitude behind the voice does nothing to suggest that the two Kates - Mulgrew and Hepburn - are anything but a perfect match for each other, and the second act certainly supports that theory as well. It's even more challenging and impressive, as Mulgrew morphs into Hepburn again 45 years further down the line. Watch her face - and listen to the audience reaction - when she turns around for the first time as the lights come up. There's not an ounce less verve, conviction, or raw success in Mulgrew's work here than in the first act. In fact, the attention to detail - the subtle quiver of her lip between words, the almost imperceptible shaking of her head while addressing the audience, the cranky richness of her voice - make for an even more indomitable achievement.
Director John Tillinger's contributions are effective but understated, yet they support Mulgrew. The actress, however, seems to succeed in spite of Matthew Lombardo's play. It itself is (at least no longer) much of anything special, it just provides a vehicle for Mulgrew to work her magic. While in one way that's enough, it's hard not to wish for more variety in the situations. The early Hepburn, vying for the role of Scarlett O'Hara in Gone With the Wind, reflects on her early life, while the older version reminisces about the time in between.
So, while you're likely to find some interesting anecdotes here (her run-in with Broadway composer Stephen Sondheim, and a frank discussion of her long-running affair with Spencer Tracy), there are few insights. Hepburn remains something of an enigma throughout Tea at Five; there's little that really opens the door into Hepburn's soul and lets you truly see the world from the inside out.
It's important to note that this was not always so. The play's original Hartford incarnation climaxed with a stunning dramatic tour-de-force in which Hepburn relived her most traumatic and formative moments and confronted them head-on. Now, the older Hepburn's comments questioning an "alternate reel" of her life, and the younger Hepburn's foray into imagination with the memory of a trying rehearsal period for a play, seem out of place, disconnected. That scene gave Mulgrew her meatiest moments, the opportunity for Lombardo to speculate on Hepburn's own heart, soul, and regrets.
Even if the revision better points up Hepburn's strength and hardness, the play is much weaker for its exclusion; it was the one time in Hartford that Tea at Five truly became great theatre instead of merely a great impression; now, that's all that remains. Still, Mulgrew makes it almost enough, and she can't help but shimmer from the play's first moments to its last. If Tea at Five never lets us really know Katharine Hepburn, we are finally seeing some of the glorious things Mulgrew is capable of, and that is almost as good a trade-off as anyone could ask for.
Tea at Five