Theatre Mirror Reviews - "The Philadelphia Story"

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note: entire contents copyright 1999 by Larry Stark

"The Philadelphia Story"

by Philip Barry
Directed by Jennifer Lavin Howard

Set Design by Ronald L. Dion
Lighting Design by Stu Perlmutter
Costume Design by Elizabeth E. Tustian
Sound Design by Rick Stewart
Stage Manager Lynne C. Dinger

Tracy Lord.......................Karen Binder
Dinah Lord...............Shannon Connolly
C.K. Dexter Haven.......Robert De Vivo
Mike Connor...........John Grenier-Ferris
Liz Embrie...............Kimberly McClure
George Kittredge........Michael Roberts
Margaret Lord..............JoAnne Powers
Sandy Lord....................Christian Potts
Seth Lord............................Rich White
Uncle Willie......................Ray Johnson
Thomas...........................Nigel Conliffe
Elsie............................Patricia Morrow
Edward..............................Duane Hess
Mac/Dr. Parsons................Doug Kitely

The Vokes Players requested the honor of my presence last night at the marriage of Tracy Lord, which I thought I remembered having attended once before. Turned out she had as well --- been married, I mean --- and the former groom, a rich yacht-designer named C. K. Dexter Haven had the blasť audacity to turn up at the festivities. You'll all read about it, since some glitzy new magazine sent round not only a brash scandalmongering reporter named Mike Connor but that award-winning news-photographer Liz Embrie to cover this "Philadelphia Story" --- no doubt with a breathlessly jaundiced eye on the witty, urbanely tawdry affairs of the idle rich. If a tenth of the crisply biting repartee I heard sees print, it should make marvellous reading. I was delighted to attend.

For the evening, Playwright Philip Barry whisked us through time to Midsummer Night 1939 and through space to a tasteful sitting-room and porch (the work of architect Ronald L. Dion, I understand) in an affluent suburb of Philadelphia, where Jennifer Lavin Howard catered the affair and Elizabeth E. Tustian supplied the tastefully moderne gowns. The wedding party omitted flowers, but the dresses were an admirable substitute.

This wedding has been re-enacted continually since the year it was written because the writing has never seemed dated, and actors and actresses of all ages in the past five decades have all but killed for the chance to say such dynamite quips and to turn the conventions of love and fidelity completely on their heads and shake vigorously until something honestly human emerges from the uproar. The late-'30s hate/love of old-monied classes crackles at the edges of a recognition that even the rich live in the wildly uncertain present, while making a good life with the cards one's dealt is usually a fascinating learning experience.

The Vokes Players --- half of them new to the teacup playing-area --- tended to skate over the surface of a lot of dialogue deep into Act I, and not to wait for the laughs, but in general they knew exactly what they were doing, and what was funny and why --- though it's possible they weren't prepared on press-night for exactly how funny this intelligent theatrically-savvy audience would find everything. Perhaps if they did wait for every laugh the show would run past midnight.

Karen Binder in the central role of Tracy was outstandlingly apt in every complicated nuance of this complicated character. Actually, the only one to keep up with her was young Shannon Connolly as her bratty little sister Dinah --- but this is a brazenly show-offish role anyway, and Director Howard expertly reined her in wherever necessary.

As the intended groom, Michael Roberts was ramrod-straight not only physically but morally as well, relying on the confident assurance of a self-made parvenu to handle all but the ultimate crisis. In contrast, Robert De Vivo as the ex-groom took his money and class enough for granted to step aside for a sharp-eyed class-critique designed to make his ex-wife see herself as honestly fallible, before her self-delusions ruined her happiness.

As the cynical scriveners come to sneer yet too artistically honest not to care, John Greiner-Ferris and Kimberly McClure achieved exactly the right balance of envy and contempt. Their manners were rougher, gruffer, more open, more direct. Ferris eventually succumbed to genuine male chutzpah by offering to the elegant millionairess "Let me take you away from all this!" McClure was content to sit at the side sniping like a self-assured gadfly until her marked-down prey exhausted his romantic fantasies and came back to her. He tended toward boyish, but she never wavered.

The family of the bride was a mixed bag. Only JoAnne Powers as Mum was blandly, properly self-assured as the still center of this generational whirlwind, reprimanding or ignoring behaviors on all sides. Christian Potts as the elder brother dabbling as editor had a lot of now-obscure magazine gossip to set up, and that thankless exposition more or less did him in. Ray Johnson as an iconoclastic, curmudgeonly Uncle Willy, and Rich White as a mid-life philanderer coming back to the fold, seemed less sure of their lines than their characters, and that insecurity ate into their effectiveness. As with everyone in this cast, however, they came through solidly wherever it really mattered.

And so, eventually, the evening turns back again to Karen Binder as Tracy Lord, the center around whom everyone whirls, the partner with whom everyone dances. It's her character's future that's always at stake, her decisions that matter. And she nails them, every one.

Director Jennifer Lavin Howard spent her time wisely making the first quarter and the last half of the play as perfect as possible. She has a great eye for placing the center of attention, so that in the midst of quick-exchange crowd scenes she can suddenly focus on a forgotten figure for a significant line or even just a silent reaction, and after that pause go right back to the general hubbub. Given more rehearsal time, or perhaps just given playing-time, this American classic could rise from damn good to dead solid perfect.

After the ceremony, I skipped the formal reception. Like those magazine people, I have deadlines to meet.


"The Philadelphia Story" (till 31 July)
Beatrice Herford's Vokes Theatre, Route 20, WAYLAND

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