Tea at Five
It isn’t often that a new rendition of a play that failed dismally in its initial presentation made sense after all—and brought substance and a sensation of import to the original.
When Matthew Lombardo’s solo play Tea at Five debuted locally in 2005, it seemed a Cliff Notes version of the life of world-class eccentric Katharine Hepburn, whose fierce individuality deserved far better. Although Lombardo’s inspiration came while channel surfing, stumbling upon Kate Mulgrew barking orders as Captain Janeway on Star Trek, despite the two actors’ similar quirky vocal characteristics, Mulgrew’s posturing, one-note performance as Hepburn was more suitable for Cartoon Network than the austere stage of Pasadena Playhouse.
Needed back then was a director possessed of the uncanny gifts of Jenny Sullivan and an actor of the quality of her frequent muse, Stephanie Zimbalist, a fortunate pairing of two ardently independent artists with the talent to unearth the subtle textures and nuances below the surface of Lombardo’s script, making it about the play rather than the ego of the player—not to mention the subject of the tale.
In Act One, Mulgrew as the young star posed with grand exaggeration around the living room of the Hepburn family estate in Fenwick, Connecticut, a lazy borough in the township of Old Saybrook, Middlesex County (population in 2001: 52), Connecticut, the place where all through her long lifetime the reclusive diva did her best hiding out.
In real life, however, Kate didn’t actually throw herself melodramatically across sofas without an audience to appreciate the move; she saved that for when she was starring in a Phillip Barry comedy. Zimbalist is simpler and infinitely more human as she paces the room wailing about her passion to play Scarlett O’Hara, seeing herself looking “like Boris Karloff in a jumpsuit” while spouting authentic Hepburn-ian revelations: “I think we all are born Democrats. Those who become successful and make money become Republicans.”
As good as Zimbalist is here, it is Act Two, unfolding in the same location in 1983, where her performance elevates from extremely good to absolute perfection. Where Mulgrew’s mime version of latter-day Hepburn was reminiscent of a community theatre presentation of Arsenic and Old Lace, Zimbalist, uncannily dead-on with quavering voice, failing physicality, and that familiar unkempt plop of gray hair tucked into itself, brings the doddery but ever-strong legend to glorious life.
The only lingering complaint is in the section, as Hepburn talks “candidly” about her relationship with Spencer Tracy as though they were actually lovers, while Phyllis Wilbourn, her “companion” for the last 41 years of her life, is mentioned peripherally only twice. This fable is becoming a little tired, especially with no one around anymore whose privacy needs to still be protected.
Dorothy Parker said of one of Kate’s early stage performances: “Go to the Martin Beck and see Katharine Hepburn run the gamut of emotions from A to B.” Luckily for Hepburn aficionados and her last remaining adorning friends, the current Hepburn resurrection at the Falcon makes it all the way to Z—for Zimbalist.
Tea at Five plays through Nov. 14 at The Falcon Theatre, 4252 Riverside Dr., Burbank; for tickets, call 818.955-8101.