AISLE SAY Philadelphia


by Philip Barry
Musical Arrangements by Laura Burton
Directed by Malcolm Black
Walnut Street Theatre, 9th & Walnut Streets, Philadelphia, PA
Playing March 9th -- April 25th, 2004
Box Office: (215) 574-3550

Reviewed by Claudia Perry

Walnut Street Theatre's spring offering is Philip Barry's romantic comedy, "The Philadelphia Story". Opening on Broadway in 1939 with Katharine Hepburn, Joseph Cotton, Van Heflin and Shirley Booth to great success, the play was then produced by M.G.M. starring Cary Grant and James Stewart with Hepburn. In the 1950's the play was then musicalized and again produced by M.G.M. as "High Society", featuring Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra and Philadelphia's own Grace Kelly.

Inspired by Main Line socialite Hope Montgomery Scott and her husband Edgar, Barry created a Main Line family known as the Lord's with vivacious daughter Tracy Lord as the focus of the play. About to remarry self-made business tycoon George Kittredge (after a disastrous first marriage to neighbor C.K. Dexter Haven) a scandal involving Tracy's estranged father threatens to ruin the proceedings. In order to stop the publication of a tattle-tale article about pater familia Tracy allows her wedding to be covered by journalist, Macaulay "Mike" Connor, and photographer, Liz Imbrie from Spy Magazine. The press is there to get the "The Philadelphia Story" and Tracy is determined to give them just that.

For me, I found the play to be charming but dated. Poor little rich girl Tracy is "so magnificent!" Why? Because she knows how to hold a cocktail glass and a conversation? Because she's pretty and intelligent and does nothing with her life besides sail and shop at the right stores? Much like the young Princess Diana, Tracy is a woman who is held in high esteem for her image and personality. (I say the young Diana because later in her life she used her celebrity to champion worthy causes -- most notably a campaign to eradicate land mines.) During the course of the play Tracy almost has a fling with Mike, Spy Magazine's cynical reporter. Now, if Tracy had seriously fallen for Mike and had had the moxie to break away from her social class and run off with him -- then I'd say we'd have a play for all time. But this isn't Shaw. This is Barry. And what the playwright seems to be saying is that we are all locked into our own societal worlds. You may flirt with the "other" world -- but you wouldn't ever really want to be a part of it. No, Tracy best play it safe and marry the nice little rich boy next door -- C. K. Dexter Haven -- because he understands her and sailboats. Frankly, I find the ending to be quite depressing because it's not romantic at all -- it's downright pragmatic. The message is that money should marry money. Now in the movie, the boy next door just happens to be Cary Grant -- so it makes the argument awfully appealing. But seeing the original play really brought home the fact that there is an inherent snobbishness to the whole business. Top this with the fact that Barry has Tracy's father, Seth Lord, blame his infidelity on the loss of his daughter's affections towards him. Seth claims that Tracy's heartlessness drove him to the arms of a Broadway chorine in his search for youth! Oh, puhlease!! Talk about misplaced guilt.

Jessica Boevers shines in the lead as Tracy Lord. Starting off as a rather brittle and cold creature, she is transformed into an empathetic young woman by the attentions of three men who adore her, respectively, in their own unique ways. Jared Reed is simply adorable as the energetic brother, Sandy Lord. Alicia Roper as the smart, professional Liz Imbrie is luminous onstage. There's no other way to put it -- she just glows. I guess you call this "star presence." At first, Blair Williams, as Macaulay "Mike" Connor, seems to have an odd way of speaking -- until you realize he is a Canadian actor doing an American accent -- and doing it well. A truly wonderful actor, he and Ms. Boevers generate great chemistry in the love scene. Unfortunately, there doesn't seem to be the same thing going on between Ms. Boevers and Steve Wilson (C.K. Dexter Haven) -- an element that is sadly lacking in the love equation Barry has devised to propel the play. Scott Greer is perfectly cast and very buffoonish as the beefy, bull headed, self-made coal tycoon, George Kittredge, who starts off as Tracy's fiancee -- but ends up as odd man out -- due to his priggish jealousy. Robin Ward is effortlessly suave and appealing as the wayward father, Seth Lord. And amazingly enough, he makes the guilt trip he lays on Tracy seem well-founded and true. (I call that good acting.) Ellen Tobie is lovely as the regal but quietly suffering mother, Margaret Lord and though Tim Moyer's character, Dr. Parsons only has two lines he manages to get a laugh.

The set by Paul Wosnek is rather spectacular. Act I features a large spacious drawing room with fireplace, baby grand piano, Persian rugs and beautifully appointed furniture. (Can I move in?) Act II shows us the terrace with arbor vines, patio furniture and potted geraniums (Though I admit that the Cadillac red flowers were a bit of a clash for me against the soft lavender lilacs. But everybody has their own palette and we as Americans tend to be very timid when it comes to color.) The most ingenious part of this Second Act set is the peek we get into the living room from the audience's view of the terrace. The sight lines are marvelous. The costumes by Hilary Corbett were for the most part successful. Tracy's outfits were divine -- a gauzy white and turquoise sailor suit and a dreamy peach concoction of a dress in Act I with a filmy white and gold formal in the second act that was just scrumptious. And the wedding ensembles for the women, most notably the turquoise dress and turban for Margaret Lord were a bit of a lark. But the outfits for the younger sister, Dinah Lord, were startlingly unattractive and done up with the most garish of accent colors. (I am guessing that this was done in an effort to make the attractive young performer who played Dinah appear to be younger than she actually was.) And why C.K. Dexter Haven always had his ascot glittering with rhinestones is puzzling to me. Unless Ms. Corbett was trying to show that these people are never not dressed.

The most important thing that director Malcolm Black has done has been to make himself all but invisible. I don't see him anywhere. I just see the play and the actors rollicking along having a great time. For playwright Philip Barry is still a master of sophisticated drawing room repartee and the script crackles with great lines and good laughs. It's fun to listen to and fun to watch. So, ladies, leave your liberated, hard working selves at the door, pretend you live in a pampered world of parties and Papparazzi and have a Stinger at each intermission. (There are two.)

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