The Philadelphia Story
Presented by ACT I
Through Sept. 25 at the Darkhorse Theater
Early in his career, Philip Barry (1896-1949) made up his mind that writing funny plays shouldn't prohibit him from giving his audiences something to think about. He became an oft-produced creator of high comedies infused with observations that tweaked the upper classes and provided insight into the mores of the day. The Philadelphia Story, his best-known effort, was first produced on Broadway in 1939, then made into a feature film in 1940 (both starring Katharine Hepburn). The play subsequently served as the source material for the 1956 musical film High Society.
The new ACT I revival, which opened last weekend, benefits mightily from Barry's smart writingso much so that, even when the company's lesser moments threaten to drive us to distraction (or worse, to somnambulism), we find some engagement with the author's wit and ideas.
Director Melissa Williams is respectful of the material, perhaps too much so. She's assembled as good a core cast as one might reasonably expect for a serious community theater endeavor. Charles Howard, John Devine and Marc Mazzone have all given notable performances in the past few years, in roles written by no less than Shakespeare, Ibsen and Sophocles. Their work here isn't bad, but so much promise goes unfulfilled.
Williams blocks her charges with logic, symmetry and attention to the proprieties of Main Line Philadelphia bluenoses. But the Seth Lord family is ripe more for lampooning than stereotyping, and no one knew this better than playwright Barry. Father is a philanderer, mother is a blasé betrayed wife, Uncle Willie is a lecher, brother Sandy is an unrepentant opportunist, and all are on their worst behavior in the midst of the wedding of vivacious socialite daughter Tracy. Enter a writer/photographer team from a popular magazine, aiming to catch the Lords in all their unflattering glory.
It's a great set-up, and there's potential for an equal amount of fun. Yet scenes that should be more playful are too often executed at arm's length. Actors engage, but too frequently they are talking at each other instead of intermingling emotionally. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the pivotal relationship between Tracy (Stephanie Vickers) and her ex-husband Dexter Haven (Howard). Given the play's trick ending, it's absolutely critical that we grasp some sense of the sexual tension that lies behind the duo's sarcastic banter. Alas, they hardly ever connect, and when the stakes are raised at the humorous conclusion, we find it hard to believe.
Some of the characterizations are adequately conceived. Devine plays the cynical magazine writer Macauley Connor insightfully. Bob Young's lascivious uncle has some comic style. And, to be fair, Vickers does a fine job of working her demanding role with poise and flair, with an assist from Melissa Bedinger-Hade's chic period outfits. (The 1930s costumes are generally appealing, save for Howard's get-up, which suffers from too much clownish argyle.)
The more egregious performance glitches seem rooted in artifice, and the resulting portrayals feel forced, lacking any jollity. Mazzone, as Tracy's stuffed-shirt fiancé George Kittredge, implies the puritanical angle well enough, but he takes the character too seriouslymore Cotton Mather than the nouveau-riche buffoon Barry intended. Robert Tarkan Doseil plays Sandy, and his offhanded acting style looks even more out of place than his Ryan Seacrest hairdo, given the 1930s milieu. Then there's Molly Thomas, who, as Tracy's upstart little sister Dinah, continues to add to her local résumé playing precocious youngsters. She has a few moments that aren't annoying, but mostly one wishes she'd underplayed the cutesiness.
There are some entertaining patches in this production, and the ensemble playing will likely improve through the remainder of the run. Yet for now, most of the credit goes to the playwright, who drolly dispenses a few timeless bons mots about the psychology of the sexes and the social structure of the pre-World War II era.
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