High Society: Laura Lowry is the play’s ice princess.
By David Templeton
As with productions of A Streetcar Named Desire, any attempt to stage Philip Barry’s Philadelphia Story comes weighted down with the heavy star-powered baggage of a beloved and much-seen movie adaptation from years ago. With Streetcar, it’s Marlon Brando’s meteoric performance that threatens to eclipse all new stagings of the play. In the case of The Philadelphia Story, it’s the galactic triple threat of Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn and Jimmy Stewart. To successfully stage Barry’s elegant romantic comedy, one must do more than cast good actors and nail the complicated pacing and patter of the script; one must either obliterate or somehow sidestep expectations carried in by memories of the 1940 movie.
In Cinnabar Theater’s season-opening production of the play, it erratically manages to do the latter. What remains is a perfectly enjoyable evening of theater that, while it still makes one want to run out and watch the wonderful old movie again, does make a few indelible and delightful impressions of its own.
Tracy Lord (Laura Lowry, who dazzled as Lady Caroline Bramble in last year’s Enchanted April) is the divorced eldest daughter of an upper-class Philadelphia family. On the eve of her marriage to the nice, safe businessman George Kittredge (a marvelously inventive Jon Burnett), her family is all aflutter with news. A local newspaper is about to run an unflattering story about Tracy’s philandering father’s recent affair with a New York showgirl to the shame of Tracy’s highly proper mother, Margaret (Laura Jorgensen). In exchange for a promise that the story will be shelved, Tracy and the other Lords submit to the intrusion of two journalists, writer Mike Connor (Paul Huberty) and career-gal photographer Liz Imbrie (Danielle Cain), who enter the scene thinking they are on an “undercover” assignment to report on the impending grand wedding.
Much of the comedy in the first act comes from the family’s attempts to impress the jaded, class-conscious reporters with their normalcy, and to convince them that their eccentric Uncle Willie (Chris Murphy) is actually the Lord’s prodigal paterfamilias (the one with the chorus-girl addiction). With another unexpected appearance by Tracy’s first husband, Dexter Haven (Peter Downey)—arranged on the sly by Tracy’s precocious younger sister, Dinah (Emmy Cozine)—a smooth trajectory toward the next morning’s wedding is no longer assured.
Initially affronted by the semisocialistic Mike’s obvious disregard for the “upper class,” Tracy ultimately finds herself reflecting uncomfortably on her own self-absorption, and an ill-timed late-night Champagne binge (involving a drunken midnight swim with the increasingly smitten Mike) threatens to sink the wedding just as Dex launches an all-out campaign to win Tracy back.
The play’s strength is in its slightly off-kilter characters, primarily Tracy, who is a roiling storm of bubbling contradictions and colliding emotions. She also gets Barry’s wittiest, most complicated dialogue, crammed with smarty-pants one-liners (“Your first born is the best—they deteriorate after that!”) and clever pronouncements (“I thought my marriage was for life, but the nice judge gave me a full pardon!”).
One of the chief problems with Cinnabar’s production is that while the cast strikes the right tone and looks spot-on (thanks in part to Joy Dean’s gorgeous costumes), they are not always up to the rat-a-tat, fast-talking delivery, allowing the words to mush together into a blur. Even from the third row, much of the dialogue was frequently impossible to make out.
Performing on a stunningly detailed, multilevel set by David R. Wright (who deserves some kind of award for the first-rate design work he’s been doing across the county over the last couple of years), the cast is strong without being particularly flashy or memorable. The exceptions are Burnett’s hilariously wrapped-tight Kittredge, Cain’s sassily pragmatic photographer Liz and Barton Smith as Tracy’s smart and amiable brother Sandy, each a performance that deviates wildly from those in the famous movie. But the heart of the piece is Lowry, who nails her character’s fragile charm, as when Tracy drops her practiced guard, charmingly and believably, to tell Mike, “I think you put your toughness on to save your skin. I know a little about that.”
Great line. Thankfully, that’s one I could clearly hear.
‘The Philadelphia Story’ runs Friday–Sunday through Oct 4. Friday–Saturday at 8pm; Sunday at 2pm. Cinnabar Theater, 3333 Petaluma Blvd. N., Petaluma. $20–$22. 707.763.8920.
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