Philip Barry's drawing-room comedy of manners, The Philadelphia Story, was a hit on Broadway in 1939, and was made into an award-winning film in 1940. Both starred Katharine Hepburn in a theatrical comeback after some box office disappointments.
The Hepburn role of Tracy Lord Haven dominates the play, and is here portrayed by Jessica Riley, who is tall, slender, beautiful and exciting, and quite credible as a wealthy and strong-willed woman, used to getting her own way. Now divorced, Tracy had been married for a year to CK Dexter Haven, here portrayed by Benjamin McLaughlin, who brings energy, sprightly charm and a sense of humor to this key role.
Tracy is about to marry again, this time to George Kittredge, and Zack Walker provides the good looks and style to make Tracy's attraction to him plausible, though he is meant to be a bit stuffy, a few steps below the dynamic Tracy. The plot thickens as reporter Mike Connor (Patrick Poole) and photographer Liz Imbrie (Ashley Fox) arrive from a tabloid to cover the wedding. Connor represents what we would call today the 99 percent, and Tracy the 1 percent, but they hit it off, and after Tracy has had a bit too much of the bubbly, take a midnight swim. Fox is excellent in a supporting role, and Poole is quite good, but he might perhaps have provided less lower-class resentment and more easygoing charm.
The cast is very large, with servants and relatives, and director Carolyn Houston Boone has marshaled them through their paces beautifully, on a handsome set by Matthew Plump, and Riley looks stunning in costumes by James McDonald. As Dinah, Tracy's teenage sister, Autumn Simpson is wonderful and amusing. As Uncle Willie Tracy, prone to patting female butts, Max Holcan is dryly amusing, and provides a powerful, tall and impressive comedic presence.
Riley keeps the sparkle going with poise, glamor and adroit comedic timing. Boone has delivered the light touch and quick-witted pace that makes this comedy work so well, and the result is delightful entertainment. And Boone has been successful in creating the desirable sense of ensemble, with the actors sharing an acting style, and this works well to welcome us into the world of wealth in an estate in a Philadelphia suburb. In the opening scene, however, the characters were so brittle and arch that they seemed to be parodying the rich, though this flaw soon dissipated.
What did remain was an inclination of some actors, Riley in particular, to move downstage center to deliver lines to the audience that should instead be delivered to a character onstage. This is a very old-fashioned acting style, and director Boone may have permitted it, or even encouraged it, to remind us that the play is close to a century old. The effect, however, is to remove us from the illusion of being on a wealthy estate, and remind us that we are in a theater in Houston, watching an actor display talent, rather than watching a character demand something from another character.
Philip Barry's writing is skillful, and the characterizations are vivid and individual, a masterwork from the days of personal creativity. The play was written by Barry for Hepburn, who performed for a share of the profits instead of salary. The movie rights were given to Hepburn by Howard Hughes, a personal friend, and Hepburn retained creative control of the film, which set a box office record at Radio City Music hall, remaking Hepburn's comeback successful.
This revival of a classic comedy captures its humor and brilliance, and regales us with an amusing take on the rich and foolish, making for a most welcome stylish entertainment.
The Philadelphia Story continues through April 27, Wortham Theatre, UH, 133 Wortham. For information or ticketing, call 713-743-2929 or contact www.uh.edu/class/theatre-and-dance.