Stage : South Coast Delivers a Mild 'Philadelphia Story'

TIMES THEATER CRITIC

Something definitely was on the mind of director Libby Appel when she staged Philip Barry's 1939 "The Philadelphia Story," which opened over the weekend at South Coast Repertory. You can guess what it is when you enter the theater and see the opulence on stage. It is what Barry called "the arrogance of class."

Evidence of that arrogance is everywhere in the handsome sets designed by Cliff Faulkner: a creamy sitting room filled with tradition, florals, antiques and light (courtesy of designer Peter Maradudin). And on the flip side of the revolving stage is the spacious, trellised porch of a verdant estate sprawling for miles somewhere on the outskirts of Philadelphia.

This frangible comedy of manners, which starred the young and vibrant Katharine Hepburn on Broadway, and later was made into a hugely appealing film with Hepburn, Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart, portrays the rich at play--an aristocracy made not from lineage but money--that has acquired some taste along the way, and even wit.

We meet Tracy Lord (Lynnda Ferguson), our heroine, as she is to be married for the second time. The new spouse is George Kittredge (Daren Kelly), something of a starched stick in the mud.

Tracy won't have her father, Seth (Richard Doyle), at the wedding because of his connections with a dancer named Tina, and is annoyed when he shows up anyway. Her ex-husband C. K. Dexter Haven (Douglas Sills), a debonair fellow, has the exquisite bad form to arrive for lunch, as do a pair of unwelcome reporters, Mike Connor (Geoff Elliott) and Liz Imbrie (Elizabeth Norment), who have been sniffing out the skeletons in the family's closets.

Because this is a comedy, the plot quickly thickens. Before 24 hours elapse, people reveal themselves as not always what they purport to be. Tracy falls in love all over again, not with one man but two, and ends up marrying the last person in the world she thought she would. There is even a moral or two thrown in, but they hardly matter. The idea of a comedy, especially this breakable kind of comedy, is to have fun stripping the cant from the complications.

Barry has done it skillfully, but this bit of summer night mayhem is ultra-light stuff--American Noel Cowardese, where much of the by-play is improbable and must be delivered with impetuousness and high style. What we get at SCR is the style. Or its outer trappings.

The other part of the equation is flat in Appel's staging. The actors make the right moves, some better than others, but we have in Ferguson a beauty who works at being imperious and playful, rather than putting real spirit into the part.

Not to put all of the focus on one person, but the structure of this play is such that the role can dictate how the rest of the play will go. Tracy is too much of an individual to conform to anything so deadly as mere snobbery. In the heart of this bright divorcee there's a radical waiting to break free. She tells us often enough that she doesn't want to be known as a prig or a "Viking goddess" and yet, in this performance, we rarely see the "golden girl full of warmth and love" that Mike Connor eventually spots and Dexter has always seen.

Sills has a natural gallantry as Dexter and Elliott a certain polished reserve as the startled Mike that serve the roles well if not brilliantly.

Forced to trade personalities when the mendacity catches up with the plot, Doyle and John-David Keller as Seth and Uncle Willie, respectively, lend a certain charm and brittleness to the proceedings. But Jill Andre's Margaret is a dithering mother without much other texture, and Jennifer Elise Cox is too aggressively cute as precocious kid sister Dinah.

In these studied performances, they are not people who capture either high society or our imaginations, even as they mildly amuse. From a half-century away, they seem impossibly flighty. And no matter how elegantly decked out they are in Ann Bruice's graceful parade of costumes, it's the spontaneity that we miss.

Instead of the gently humorous betrayals and madcap oscillations at the seismic heart of the piece, this production delivers a gaudy confectioner's bonbon: pretty enough to be tempting, and loaded with empty calories.

'The Philadelphia Story'

Jennifer Elise Cox: Dinah Lord

Jill Andre: Margaret Lord

Lynnda Ferguson: Tracy Lord

Marc Alain Epstein: Alexander (Sandy) Lord

Don Cook: Thomas

John-David Keller: William (Uncle Willie) Tracy

Elizabeth Norment: Elizabeth (Liz) Imbrie

Geoff Elliott: Macaulay (Mike) Connor

Daren Kelly: George Kittredge

Douglas Sills: C. K. Dexter Haven

Richard Doyle: Seth Lord

Art Koustik: Mac

A revival of Philip Barry's 1939 comedy. Director Libby Appel. Sets Cliff Faulkner. Lights Peter Maradudin. Costumes Ann Bruice. Music and sound Michael Roth. Stage manager Bonnie Lorenger. Production manager Edward Lapine.

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