By Christopher Caggiano
Faye Dunaway has chosen Tea at Five as the vehicle to bring her back to Broadway after a 37-year absence. Would that she had waited a bit longer for a vehicle more worthy of her considerable talents.
Tea at Five by Matthew Lombardo. Directed by John Tillinger. At the Avenue of the Arts / Huntington Avenue Theatre, Boston, MA, through July 14.
The posters for Tea at Five feature two names above the title: Dunaway and Hepburn, as if that’s all you need to know about the production before you buy your tickets. Well, here’s something else you might want to know: it isn’t very good.
Tea at Five is a thankfully short (70 minutes) one-act, one-woman play that features Academy Award winner Faye Dunaway portraying Katharine Hepburn relatively late in Hepburn’s life. The play has been kicking around since 2002 when Kate Mulgrew appeared in an Off-Broadway production. The script has subsequently played a variety of locations, featuring a range of performers, including Tovah Feldshuh, Stephanie Zimbalist, and Charles Busch.
And now Faye Dunaway has chosen Tea at Five as the vehicle to bring her back to Broadway after a 37-year absence. Would that she had waited a bit longer for a vehicle more worthy of her considerable talents.
Thankfully, Dunaway does not attempt an impersonation of Hepburn so much as an embodiment. She captures Hepburn’s On Golden Pond-era doddering gait and her always-regal countenance. However, Dunaway wisely avoids adopting Hepburn’s Locust Valley lockjaw accent as well as her oft-impersonated tremoring (which has frequently been misidentified as Parkinson’s disease, and was in fact a condition called an “essential tremor”).
But if Dunaway has the physical countenance down, she hasn’t quite mastered all of her lines. Despite this performance being the official press opening, Dunaway was noticeably — shall we say, hesitant? — with her many of her lines. There were numerous obvious flubs in nearly every sequence in the play, including Hepburn’s famed “calla lily” speech (of which you could hear numerous letter-perfect renditions in just about any gay bar across this great land).
Dunaway does manage to remind us why, despite her relative absence from the stage and the screen in the last 30 years, she remains a Hollywood legend. She has a palpable emotional intensity, and gives you the sense that entire scenes are playing out behind her eyes as part of her backstory. She’s a legend for a reason.
Unfortunately, Matthew Lombardo’s script doesn’t give her the support to bring dramatic moments fully to life. Lombardo seems to specialize in vanity productions for actresses of a certain age. His two Broadway outings thus far have been Looped (2010), which featured Valerie Harper as Tallulah Bankhead, and High (2011), starring Kathleen Turner as an acerbic nun. Looped ran a little under a month, and High ran for less than a week.
In Tea at Five, Lombardo paints with the broadest of strokes, with little nuance or complexity. He merely presents us with an overview of Hepburn’s career, without much of a meaningful through line. In another one-character play, Tru (1989), author Jay Presson Allen anchors her portrayal of Truman Capote in a specific temporal context: Capote’s society friends have just abandoned him when they discover he’s writing a book that exposes their secrets. There’s no similar “Why now?” justification in Tea at Five.
Instead, Lombardo gives us banal lessons on the vagaries of fame. “Critical acclaim doesn’t always translate into dollar signs,” Hepburn tells us. Or, “If you’re good to your work, your work will be good to you.” His attempts at humor are likewise ham-fisted, with punchlines worthy of the Borscht Belt. “I checked into the Waldorf,” Hepburn says at one point. “I should have checked into Bellevue,” referring of course to the well-known psychiatric facility. Lombardo even breaks out the tired trope of saying someone “shall remain nameless” followed by the immediate mention of that person’s name
What’s worse, Lombardo doesn’t seem to know how to raise the theatrical stakes in his play. He simply includes a series of emotional events as if that were the same as creating credible drama. He makes an especially risible attempt at creating an epiphany for Hepburn by drawing a connection between the suicide of her brother and the death of Spencer Tracy. Upon discovering Spencer Tracy dead in their kitchen, Hepburn cries out, “Spence! Tom! Tom! Spence!” It’s never really clear what the parallel is meant to be, other than she discovered both of them dead. (Perhaps this is a failed attempt at evoking Dunaway’s famous “She’s my sister! She’s my daughter!” scene from Chinatown? Whatever, it’s more ridiculous than dramatically compelling.)
Tea at Five is certainly valuable as a chance to see Faye Dunaway in person. Memorization mishaps notwithstanding, this could shape up to be a fine performance, and will likely get even better. After 17 years of development, it seems unlikely that the same will prove true of the play.
Christopher Caggiano is a writer and teacher based in Boston. He serves as Associate Professor of Theater at the Boston Conservatory at Berklee. His writing has appeared in American Theatre and Dramatics magazines, and on TheaterMania.com and ZEALnyc.com.