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.
- Terri Paddock