Critics

FINANCIAL TIMES  (UK)
May 12, 2005
The Philadelphia Story
Old Vic, London
by Alastair Macaulay

Kevin Spacey’s first season at the Old Vic has been short of good roles for women, and he wraps it up with an old piece of misogyny, The Philadelphia Story. The gist of Philip Barry’s 1939 play is simple: the goddess-like Tracy Lord should have been saving her father from adultery and her ex-husband from drink by giving them unconditional love, whereas, by withholding her sympathy from these creeps, she is: a) forcing them to the sins from which she alone could have redeemed them and b) an inadequate human being. Maybe the best thing about Jerry Saks’s Old Vic staging is that it is artificial: you can’t believe it, but you can laugh at the jokes. Sets are pretty, costumes variable, lighting unfriendly. The finest and funniest performance comes from Julia McKenzie as Tracy’s mother. The lovely Jennifer Ehle never has Tracy’s supposed “magnificence”, least of all in her dull contralto voice. Presumably so as not to make Spacey look too middle-aged, all her suitors look well over 40. He, playing the ex-husband Dexter, is the most relaxed person, but you can’t believe he’s in love with his ex-wife: he overdoes the male puppeteering and heartless slyness.  — The Philadelphia Story (Financial Times)

© Copyright The Financial Times Ltd 2005.

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THE INDEPENDENT  (UK)
May 12, 2005
The Philadelphia Story
Old Vic, London
Dated, but a crowd-pleaser by Paul Taylor

Kevin Spacey’s regime at the Old Vic has been so weirdly unconnected to the desires and instincts of the London theatre-going public that entering this historic theatre has, of late, been a bit like crossing into a parallel universe. First, there was Cloaca, by an unknown Dutch writer, which was like Art without, well, the art. Then there was National Anthems, a second-rate Eighties comedy, whose main claim to fame seems to have been that Spacey had starred in it once before (when he was the right age) in the States. I began to feel that he would have to apply for diplomatic immunity and run the place like an offshoot of the American Embassy. Well, it would have been a more appropriate status for it than living London theatre. Which brings us to The Philadelphia Story. In terms of familiarity and audience-friendliness, you could say that this choice goes to the opposite extreme. It’s almost as if this piece is being offered to the public like the chocolate that is given to a child as a reward for swallowing two nasty spoonfuls of medicine. The movie version of Philip Barry’s 1939 play (and the musical spin-off, High Society) are held in deeply affectionate regard. This factor, plus the presence of Spacey in the Cary Grant role, must account for the near-record £1.2m box-office advance. So it’s already a hit financially. But how does it rate artistically? Well, Jerry Zaks’ handsomely designed production turns out be a respectable hit-and-miss affair. Though the part feels significantly shorter than in the movie, Spacey makes a strong, mischievous impact, oozing laidback dangerous charm as the playboy CK Dexter Haven, who insinuates himself back into the upper-class family home of his socialite former wife, Tracy Lord, on the eve of her remarriage to a parvenu coal tycoon. Jennifer Ehle, playing Tracy, is no Katharine Hepburn. Her patrician put-downs and imperious manner lack the right thoroughbred comic spirit. Her de haut en bas manner should come across as effortless, but here you can sense the strain. She is a great deal better at conveying Tracy’s scalded hurt and surprise when she discovers that people regard her as a cold virgin goddess with a snooty intolerance of human weakness. In the Jimmy Stewart role, as the snooping journo who becomes a rival for her favours, DW Moffett communicates the anti-toff chippiness but leaves out the charm. The play version comes across as creakier and more dated than the movie. There were gasps from young women in the audience when Tracy is confronted by her stern, philandering father who tells her that if only she had been a blindly devoted daughter to him, he wouldn’t have needed to cheat on her mother. “You didn’t love me enough and that’s why you are to blame for my peccadilloes” is the cry of the bounder down the ages. This male complacency, seemingly endorsed by the play, sticks in the craw. Zaks paces the final scene, where Tracy unhitches herself from both her censorious fiancé and her platonic journo fling, with a real feel for the emotional gravity behind the frivolity, and Ehle rises to the occasion with aplomb. This play is a creative cousin of Noël Coward’s Private Lives in that two formerly married people recognise themselves as soulmates and re-embrace only after getting spliced (or here almost getting spliced) to stuffy Mr Wrong. The difference is that in Coward, Elyot and Amanda are presented as aristocrats of the artistic spirit. Tracy and Dex are social aristocrats, too, and for all the lip service the drama pays to the notion that worth can be found in any class, it is significant that this well-bred pair oust the upstart businessman who stalks off like Malvolio in Twelfth Night. Unable to disguise the reactionary temper of the play, this revival is somewhat less than a total success story. To 6 August  © Copyright 2005, The Independent

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VARIETY
May 11, 2005
The Philadelphia Story by Matt Wolf
(Old Vic Theater, 1,000 seats, £42.50 ($80) top)   LONDON An Old Vic Theater Company presentation, in association with Duncan C. Weldon and Paul Elliott, of a play in three acts by Philip Barry. Directed by Jerry Zaks.   Tracy Lord – Jennifer Ehle Mike Connor – D.W. Moffett Margaret Lord – Julia McKenzie Liz Imbrie – Lauren Ward C.K. Dexter Haven – Kevin Spacey Sandy Lord – Damien Matthews Dinah Lord – Talulah Riley Uncle Willie Tracy – Nicholas Le Prevost Seth Lord – Oliver Cotton George Kittredge – Richard Lintern

Tracy Lord suffers from “exceptionally high standards,” or so we’re told early in “The Philadelphia Story,” the Jerry Zaks production that brings the initial season of Kevin Spacey’s Old Vic regime to an uninspired end. Have standards been set too high for what remains a uniquely audacious experiment that might have sent many a more seasoned company leader packing some months back? Perhaps. And yet, far from concluding the inaugural lineup on a high, Zaks’ first staging to originate in Britain encases Jennifer Ehle’s delicious star turn in a sexless package, alternately sluggish and manic. The ever-demanding Tracy, one senses, would not approve. This “Story” gets arguably the most difficult aspect of the equation right — finding a heroine who can hold her own in period comedy while banishing the punishing specter of Katharine Hepburn, the original Tracy on stage and screen. Coming relatively late to a casting process that weighed numerous potential leading ladies, Ehle turns out to be the distinguishing feature of an evening that for the most part feels oddly desultory, as if the Anglo-American company had yet to establish its rhythm. (Play opened after a single week of previews, which is nothing compared to Broadway, where a largely recast “Story” will be seen next spring.) A scenario dependent on inebriation gets off to a sober start, notwithstanding the Mendelssohn cues clearly intended to set up Philip Barry’s 1939 comedy of Philadelphia Main Line mores as its own midsummer night’s dream. Tracy is about to marry hubby No. 2, George Kittredge (Richard Lintern), when the bustling Lord household is further complicated by the unexpected arrival of two journalistic snoops, Mike Connor (D.W. Moffett) and Liz Imbrie (a shrill Lauren Ward), and by Tracy’s first husband, the jaunty C.K. Dexter Haven (Spacey, filling Cary Grant’s shoes from the 1940 film). Though cast in a supporting role, Spacey obviously provides this production’s box office catnip: Small wonder there was considerable grousing when it was revealed the actor would abandon ship for seven weeks from June 18 to shoot the new “Superman” film. (He is due back for the final month of shows.) Will Tracy do the expected and marry George, or will she be seduced anew by “Dext,” her onetime beau? The question gains in complexity during a drunken and giddy encounter with Mike, who jettisons his aspersions toward the Lord family haut monde long enough to admit he just may be falling in love with Tracy, the queen awaiting dethronement. Watching with varying degrees of intrusiveness from the sidelines are Tracy’s little sister, Dinah (a terrifyingly precocious Talulah Riley); her jocund brother Sandy (Damien Matthews in a role eliminated from the film); and Tracy’s mother, Margaret (a tart Julia McKenzie), whose own domestic problems help grease the wheels of a mistaken-identity plot that never quite builds to the Feydeau-esque levels of farce promised near the outset. In some ways, “Story” ought to be just the sort of vehicle British critics have been demanding all along from Spacey, who has been faulted for his choice of plays, whether European (the Dutch “Cloaca”) or American (“National Anthems”). An iconic slice of the American canon, “Story” hasn’t played the West End since 1948, while its interest in class — Mike’s ideological bugbear — should tally more in Britain than in the U.S. The problem comes on the flesh-and-blood level that has everything to do not with playwright Barry’s gifts as social anatomist but with Tracy’s humanity, which to the world looks as if it has been sacrificed on the altar of appearances. (That said, John Lee Beatty’s sets for this moneyed menagerie could be a tad grander, while Tom Rand’s costumes — a peculiar puffed-sleeve number for Ehle, especially — come off as more eccentric than elegant.) But how can we melt along with Tracy if the putative triangle of which she is the apex strikes so few sparks? Even more than his co-stars, virtually all of whom are a decade or more too old for their roles, Moffett transmits none of the insouciance someone like Robert Sean Leonard (Spacey’s co-star in “The Iceman Cometh” on Broadway) might have brought to the assignment. And while Spacey is tremendously funny as he darts about the living room, in the process redefining the phrase “lounge lizard,” he seems at some fundamental remove from the part, his ready-made irony and sardonic turns of phrase no replacement for the missing joy and pathos. That leaves Ehle stranded in ways unknown to Tracy, which isn’t fair to an actress marking her return to the British stage after five years. In robust voice and with none of the archness that seems to inhabit some of the lines (it’s no cinch making remarks like “golly Moses” sound utterly casual), the actress gives us a so-called goddess winningly brought down to earth in a production that too rarely takes flight. — Sets, John Lee Beatty; costumes, Tom Rand; lighting, Hugh Vanstone; sound, Fergus O’Hare. Opened, reviewed May 10, 2005. Runs through Aug. 6. Running time: 2 HOURS, 35 MIN. — The Philadelphia Story (Variety)
© 2005 Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

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WHAT’S ON STAGE  (UK)
May 11, 2005 P
hiladelphia Story by Terri Paddock
— Philadelphia Story Venue: Old Vic Where: West End WOS Rating: ** (2 stars)

Anyone who hasn’t seen the 1940 film version of The Philadelphia Story (or Cole Porter’s 1956 musical of the story, High Society) is likely to be disappointed in this new production of the stage original; anyone who has seen the film, is likely to be bitterly disappointed. Philip Barry wrote the 1939 Broadway comedy, about a spoilt heiress who learns some harsh lessons in tolerance on her wedding day, as a vehicle for Katharine Hepburn, who drove it all the way to Hollywood, reprising her role as Tracy Lord in George Cukor’s classic film alongside Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart (who Hepburn ‘settled for’ over her first choices, Spencer Tracey and Clark Gable) as suave ex-husband CK Dexter Haven and undercover society journalist Mike Connor. To be fair, the main problem with this new production lies with the original script – aside from being horribly dated (patriarch Seth Lord’s explanation of his philandering, apparently a consequence of his grown daughter’s refusal to blindly adore him, elicits cringes), it simply isn’t very funny. Certainly not nearly as funny as the film, which was penned by Donald Ogden Stewart. If the Old Vic had been able to commission a fresh version, based on both the play and the screenplay, perhaps the result would have been more enjoyable. As it is, we’re stuck with something that looks, sounds and feels dreadfully old-fashioned and is dull, dull, dull. John Lee Beatty’s drawing room set is fine, though hardly opulent, and worse, it necessitates two intervals in order to effect the minimal switch to the patio just beyond the windows. Those 15-minute breaks arrest any possible momentum in Jerry Zaks’ already plodding production. As for the casting, well, anyone would suffer from comparisons with the Hepburn, Grant and Stewart triumvirate so best not to draw any. Ehle, of course, has the most daunting task in not only taking on a role so closely associated with another actress but one which was written specifically for her and tailored to her personality and physicality. Happily, Ehle doesn’t attempt to impersonate Hepburn. Sadly, while she’s often luminous, neither she nor any of the other Lords does enough to make us feel that they belong to a privileged class far beyond the reach of other mere mortals. There’s something far too common about the lot of them. For their parts, Spacey is wryly amusing as Dexter, but American import DW Moffett is wooden and woefully miscast as Mike – and even taken with Richard Lintern’s fiancé George Kittredge, the combined sexual chemistry generated between them and Elhe’s Tracy is minimal. In the supporting cast, Damien Matthews as brother Sandy Lord (a part excised from Stewart’s screenplay) is one of the few who seems truly at ease, though Julia McKenzie as mother Margaret, Lauren Ward as photographer Liz Imbrie, and an over-the-top Nicholas Le Prevost as libidinously lush Uncle Willie seize their comic moments. Copyright 1997-2005 Whatsonstage, all rights reserved.

THE GUARDIAN  (UK)

May 11, 2005
The Philadelphia Story
*** (3 stars out of 5 stars) Old Vic, London
by Michael Billington
The Guardian

Kevin Spacey’s first Old Vic season ends better than it began with a decent enough revival of Philip Barry’s urbane 1939 Broadway comedy. But I still feel the Old Vic deserves bigger, bolder, more exciting fare: perhaps we shall get it next season with Trevor Nunn directing Spacey in Richard II.

For the moment Barry’s play is amiable, butter-bland stuff. It concerns, as all moviegoers will recall, the moral education of Tracy Lord: a wealthy Philadelphia heiress who has brains, beauty but a shocking intolerance of human weakness. On the eve of her second marriage to a mining magnate, she is condemned by her first husband as a “virgin goddess” and by her father as “a prig and a perennial spinster”. Only after she has got wildly squiffy with an intrusive, infatuated journalist does she confront her own frailty and revise her plans.

What gives the play its curiosity value is Barry’s equivocal attitude to the rich: having started out by satirising them, he ends up adoring them. His most telling point is that 1930s America was full of iron maidens such as Tracy who promised but never delivered: when Spacey, playing Tracy’s first husband, waspishly said of their marriage “it was an affair of the spirit, not the flesh” it even struck me it had never been fully consummated. But Barry’s attack on America’s Tracys soon
turns into an embossed Valentine to the rich in which anyone who questions their privileges is instantly deemed a snob.

In truth, Barry’s play lives or falls by the casting of Tracy herself; and rarely in history can there have been a part so immaculately tailored to its original actor. The critic George Jean Nathan claimed Barry spent two months with Katharine Hepburn, “noting carefully every attractive gesture she made, every awkwardly graceful movement of her body, every little odd quirk of her head and every effective dart of her eyes”. No wonder the role on stage and screen fitted her like a glove: it had been manufactured to meet her body language and metallic persona.

Wisely, Jennifer Ehle makes no attempt to impersonate Hepburn; and she is very good in the early scenes at capturing both Tracy’s lordliness and starched sexiness. She also conveys Tracy’s pain at being cruelly told by her scapegrace father that what she lacks is “an understanding heart”. But, although Ehle has Tracy’s moneyed style, I missed the melting eroticism of the scene where she drunkenly unbends with the adoring journalist: Jerry Zaks’ fastidious production never quite captures the sense that we are seeing a new, more emotionally generous woman.

As with National Anthems, the chief acting pleasure lies in watching Spacey himself at work. As CK Dexter Haven, Tracy’s first, still unsatisfied husband, Spacey constantly reminded me of Jack Benny: there is the same dapper precision, mocking smile and immaculate comic timing. When Tracy’s pompous groom says, “I’ve got eyes and imagination, haven’t I?”, Spacey gives him exactly the same long, hard stare that Benny used to reserve for the band that would interrupt him in mid-joke. There is also a hint of the mischievous Machiavel about Spacey’s performance that for me lifted the whole evening.

For the rest we have a mixed Anglo-American cast that uneasily straddles two continents. DW Moffett, an authentic American, plays the intrusive, working-class journalist with a dull, rock-jawed solidity. On the other hand, Nicholas Le Prevost is lewdly funny as the bottom-pinching Uncle Willie but is as defiantly English as cheddar cheese. One of the best performances, however, comes from Lauren Ward, who endows the journalist’s photographer chum with a watchful acerbity that reminded me of Hollywood’s Eve Arden.

It is, in short, a mixed evening. It looks pretty enough in John Lee Beatty’s designs and passes two and a half hours perfectly pleasantly. But there are many better American plays demanding revival: how about a look at early O’Neill, Odets or Rice? And, in the age of the video, one can’t help making invidious comparisons with the George Cukor movie. Having entertained us sufficiently, I just hope Spacey remembers in his next season that he who dares wins.

Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2005

THE TIMES  (UK)
May 11, 2005
The Philadelphia Story
*** (3 stars out of 5 stars)
by Benedict Nightingale at The Old Vic, SE1

STRANGE to see the Old Vic curtain rising on butlers butling, footmen footing and maids daintily dusting furniture for characters who think South Bend as quaint a place name as our Bognor Regis or Herne Bay.

Kevin Spacey has staged some surprising things since he became the famous old theatre’s artistic director last autumn — a poor Dutch play about the male menopause, a dull American piece about consumerist suburbia — but none more so than Philip Barry’s counterpart of what Kenneth Tynan called the Loamshire comedy.

That’s a genre whose characters “belong to a social class derived partly from romantic novels and partly from the playwright’s vision of the leisured life he’ll lead after the play is a success” — and, added Tynan, it is of no more use to a student of life than a doll’s house to a student of town planning.

Oh well. The play’s main message, that we should be more tolerant of the privileged, may seem dated in post-Thatcher Britain; but, as those who have seen the film by the same name or the musical version that called itself High Society, The Philadelphia Story is far more fun than the plays that have preceded it. And with Jennifer Ehle shining in the part Barry wrote for Katherine Hepburn in 1939, and Spacey himself at his most debonaire in the role played by Cary Grant onscreen, it’s sure to bring the crowds to the Waterloo Road.

The setting is a mansion near Haverford, Bryn Mawr or some other Welsh-sounding burgh in the posh exurbia Philadelphians call the Main Line. Ehle’s Tracy Lord is about to make a second marriage to a self-made magnate, and the signs aren’t promising. Her first husband, Spacey’s Dexter Haven, turns up and says rude things about her priggishness. Oliver Cotton as her father, who has been canoodling with a mistress in New York, follows suit. And the wedding party is invaded by a snooping journalist, D. W. Moffett’s Mike, who makes it clear that, as a Jeffersonian democrat, he regards her and her family as spoiled leeches.

He must be (and is) quickly relieved of the chip on his shoulder, deciding she’s “tremendous”, and she must be (and is) relieved of the ice cubes in her heart. With the help of Moffett’s adoring hack, Spacey as the cool, relaxed Dexter, and Talulah Riley as her annoyingly precocious little sister, Tracy takes enough unaccustomed booze to thaw herself and appal her pompous fiancé, giving us a mini-scandal and a fairy-tale ending.

Jerry Zaks’s production is fluent enough, but can’t hide the fact that Barry makes too little of his most promising comic situation, the pretence to the intrusive journo that Tracy’s bottom-pinching uncle is actually her father; but then it’s not well motivated in the first place. Julia McKenzie, Nicholas Le Prevost and others add lustre to the evening, but only Ehle is truly excellent. Whatever the cavils, she’s an
Artemis with a bit of Amazon in her heart — and, it emerges, a touch of Dionysus in her soul.

Copyright 2005 Times Newspapers Ltd.