State Theatre Institute, through May 3
The Philadelphia Story became the beloved 1940 film
starring Katharine Hepburn as a spoiled socialite, The
Philadelphia Story was a hit 1939 Broadway play written
specifically for Katharine Hepburn by upper-class playwright
Philip Barry, who reportedly spent two months with Hepburn
to tailor-make the role for her. While a day in the life of
a socialite sounds like a bad reality TV show, the 24 hours
leading up to the socialite’s second wedding (the premise
of The Philidelphia Story) sounds like a day in hell.
But The Philadelphia Story is a beloved classic film,
and the play is still a period piece that fascinates theater-history
buffs and continues to entertains those who like classics.
York State Theatre Institute’s current production of The
Philadelphia Story features the same attention to period
detail that NYSTI has brought to its production of such dated
classics as Harvey and Arsenic and Old Lace.
Set designer Duke Durfee creates the opulent sitting room
of the Lords’ Philadelphia mansion and the portico immediately
adjacent; each bursts with the trappings of “old money,” right
down to the above-the-mantelpiece Gilbert Stuart portrait
of the Lords’ colonial ancestor who is the root of their fortune.
Brent Griffin’s costume design seems to be channeled from
a séance of the film’s stars: Hepburn, Cary Grant, and Jimmy
and set create the perfect ambience for The Philadelphia
Story’s plot. Socialite Tracy Lord (Mary Jane Hansen in
the Hepburn role) fumes and pontificates during the 24 hours
leading up to her wedding to her nouveau-riche soon-to-be
second husband, George Kittredge (David Bunce well-playing
the John Howard prig role). Tracy frets that scandal will
disrupt her upcoming nuptials when her brother Sandy (Matthew
DeCapua, sounding like a young John Romeo) tries to kill a
story in Destiny magazine (the father of People
and grandfather of E-Entertainment) about their estranged
father’s infidelity by offering up an exclusive look at old
money marrying nouveau money. Appalled but resigned, Tracy
agrees to the scheme, promising Destiny a look at the
upper class that no one will soon forget.
brings in the disdainful Destiny writer, Macaulay Connor
(an affable David Girard in Jimmy Stewart’s Academy Award-winning
role), and the sexy Destiny photographer Liz Imbrie
(the vivacious Susan Cicarelli Caputo in Ruth Hussey’s Academy
Tracy’s disdainful but still- smitten first husband, C.K.
Dexter Haven (Jason Marr in Cary Grant’s debonair and dapper
role), arrives, secretly invited by Tracy’s bratty younger
sister, sparks and revelations fly fast and furious.
theater company is better suited to explore outdated period
pieces like this than NYSTI, which has made a habit of it
the past few years. The Philadelphia Story’s theme
of old money being better than the nouveau riche, or of working-class
resentments over old money, may seem out-of-place in a post-Bernie
Madoff, bailout-for-Wall-Street, teabag-party world, but that’s
what makes NYSTI so unique. As Connor says, “The prettiest
sight in this pretty world is the privileged class enjoying
their privileges.” At nearly three hours running time, The
Philadelphia Story is a long look at privilege, but if
you think of Tracy Lord (for whom the former porn actress
Traci Lords is named) as the Paris Hilton of 1940, the play
takes on a decidedly more contemporary feel.