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Mad money: Girard and Hansen in The Philadelphia Story.

Pride and Privilege

By James Yeara

The Philadelphia Story

By Philip Barry, directed by William Fortune

New York State Theatre Institute, through May 3

Before 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.

The New 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 Stewart.

The costumes 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.

Sandy 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 Award-nominated role).

When 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.

No local 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.


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