Faye Dunaway Channels Katharine Hepburn in 'Tea at Five'

by Robert Nesti

EDGE National Arts & Entertainment Editor

Saturday July 6, 2019

Faye Dunaway as Katharine Hepburn in "Tea at Five."
Faye Dunaway as Katharine Hepburn in "Tea at Five."  (Source:Nile Scott Studios)

As a famous ad once asked, what becomes a legend most? In the case of Katharine Hepburn, the cantankerous Hollywood survivor, it wasn't posing in a Blackglama fur (she never did), rather it turns out to be paid homage by another Hollywood survivor — Faye Dunaway in "Tea at Five," Matthew Lombardo's breezy snapshot of the famous actress caught late in her career.

There is that snapshot when the curtain goes up at the Huntington Theatre, where the play runs through July 14 prior to New York: Hepburn sitting in a handsome if spare sitting room in her Connecticut home. Her hair swept back, a red sweater across her shoulders and wearing beige, gabardine slacks, Dunaway is a vision — both visually and aurally — of the actress made famous in her appearances on The Dick Cavett Show and her late film roles.

But the rub is that she's also recognizably Faye Dunaway — the actress with the smoldering stare and uncompromising commitment she has shown in such films as "Chinatown," "Network," and even the title that dare not be mentioned — "Mommie Dearest." It was her fierce performance as another Hollywood legend — Joan Crawford — that stymied her career; but no one can deny how exacting she was. When watching "Mildred Pierce" with friends recently, a Millennial came into the room and said, "OMG. I loved her in 'Mommie Dearest.'" Such was the power of her performance.

Faye Dunaway as Katharine Hepburn in "Tea at Five."
Faye Dunaway as Katharine Hepburn in "Tea at Five."  (Source: Nile Scott Studios)

Ms. Dunaway also gave life to another legend, this time on stage when she toured as opera diva Maria Callas in Terrence McNally's "Master Class" in 1996. She made for a commanding Callas - stern and authoritative, but vulnerable. She shows the same commitment here, which makes her Hepburn so fascinating to watch. It must be said that this is a performance in flux - not yet fully realized and with the occasional falter. (She slipped on her lines every now and then.) Nor has the arc of the performance fully realized; but Ms. Dunaway is most certainly on the right track, achieving moments of extraordinary connection with her audience.

One such one occurs when she talks about her brother Tom, who committed suicide as a teenager because, Hepburn remembers haltingly, he was bullied for having a crush on another boy. Sitting in the shadows, Ms. Dunaway chokes with emotion, but always in with that unique stiff-upper-lip attitude that she retained from her Yankee upbringing; and the audience watches in solemn silence as if sharing her grief.

Another moment happens when she remembers Spencer Tracy, the actor with whom she had a 26-year affair. As she pointedly notes, when you love an alcoholic, it is the bottle that wins - an observation that leads to the play's climactic speech in which Hepburn recreates a moment when she bangs, angrily but in vain, on Tracy's hotel room door. In her emotional plea, she confuses Tracy for her dead brother and the moment touches deeply. What Ms. Dunaway does best is strip away that famous crusty exterior to reveal a woman crushed by things she could not control in her life.

Lombardo has retooled his play, originally done in 2002 as a two-act play that contrasted a younger Hepburn with her older one for actress Kate Mulgrew. What gave that production its tension was the contrast between the athletic, headstrong Hepburn of the first act and the more sedentary, yet still ornery Hepburn of the second. What tension there is here is whether or not Hepburn will accept an offer from Warren Beatty (the flowers he sends make a most welcome decorative effect in Scott Pask's handsome set) to appear in his film "Love Affair;" and it is a rather lame hook. (She accepted and the film was an embarrassment for all involved.)

Nonetheless, his script offers an enjoyable overview of Ms. Hepburn's career - from inventing herself through the help of a Wagnerian soprano-turned-acting coach to her divisive career on Broadway and Hollywood. She relates how she turned her career around single-handedly when labeled "box office poison" by securing "The Philadelphia Story" by playwright Philip Barry. And there is some fun at the expense of (of all people) Stephen Sondheim, whose writing of the song "You Could Drive a Person Crazy" nearly drove her mad. They had adjacent townhouses in Manhattan, which leads to a 15-minute staring confrontation one winter morning, which she relates in that patrician accent she appears to have invented.

Hepburn was always an original and an outsider - blazing her own path in an entertainment industry not favorable to women. You can sense Ms. Dunaway's identification with the actress she plays - both came from the theater, both were considered difficult in Hollywood, both had career falters, both returned to the theater late in the career, and both acted into their 70s. It is that synergy between these careers that makes watching Ms. Dunaway's performance such an occasion.

While there's an autumnal glow to this production, expertly staged by John Tillinger, that captures the famous actress at a moment right before Parkinson's Disease would take its toll; don't cry for Katharine Hepburn. She admits not having regrets and that her commitment to her career was primary in her life. Early on she explains how conventional marriage wasn't for her after two weeks just prior to embarking on her acting career in 1930. Oddly her later film career is largely ignored, save for the string of memorable comedies she made with Spencer Tracy. Her attraction to him - and other damaged men such director John Ford and mogul Howard Hughes - is explained as to be because of her failure to help her doomed brother. This may be conjecture by Mr. Lombardo (and Hepburn's biographers), but how Ms. Dunaway makes us believe it as true is proof of the depth of her performance. This isn't so much caricature as portraiture.

"Tea at Five" continues through July 14 at the Huntington Avenue Theatre, 264 Huntington Avenue Theatre, Boston, MA. For more information, visit this website.

Robert Nesti can be reached at [email protected].