The Vivian Beaumont, dark since Joe Papp called it quits three years ago, reopened Friday evening with a sumptuous production of the Philip Barry comedy "The Philadelphia Story," and zing went the strings of our hearts. Winged and gorgeous is the Lincoln Center night.
One is tempted to give all or most of the credit to Blythe Danner for her radiant, quicksilver performance as the mettlesome Tracy Lord. But that would be to ignore Barry's superb creation of a role originally played by the inimitable Katharine Hepburn, who can still be caught in the movie version now and then on the late show.
It would also be easy to dwell on the trivial nature of the characters and on the dated aspects of this 1939 work, written at a time of great social and political unrest when men as well as women seemed oddly more emancipated, despite the vastly different mores, than they do in today's complexly structured and compartmentalized society.
You'll recall that the action takes place on June weekend at the country estate of the Lords, a wilful and unconventionally spirited Philadelphia Main Line family whose elder daughter Tracy is about to remarry, this time to a leftist labor leader named George Kittredge come up from the coal mines. Mike and Liz, a reporter-photographer team from one of those countless one-word picture mags that sprang up at the time (George S. Kaufman came awfully close in predicting that one with an unprintable four-letter word would follow Look, Pic, Click and the rest), are there on assignment to cover the "families" segment of their in-depth "Philadelphia story."
While the errant head of the family, Seth Lord, drops in from New York, where he lives with a young artist mistress, and other family members show up for the occasion, Tracy's loyalty begins shifting, first to the reporter and then to her first husband, C.K. Dexter Haven, a suitably rich and carefree young man whose behavior for some reason alienated Tracy after a mere 10 months of marriage. Avid boaters both, they weren't very "yar" themselves, it seems, to use the pair's fondly and bothersomely reiterated term.
Watching the enchanting Danner sail, sway, trip, stagger (that morning after a night of champage and a very late nude dip in the pool with Mike proved a bit too much) about John Conklin's enormous, generously appointed and flower-adorned summer-room-and-garden setting, all the while employing that distinctively husky voice with the nuances and rubatos of a master cellist, is a delight in itself.
Why should Mike or Dexter or George have her, for God's sake? Why not you? Why not you? But then, Tracy Samantha Lord is going to be a handful every day of her dizzy life. If you don't remember who gets to spar with her for all the days to come, I won't remind you.
Edward Herrmann, in a brilliantly skillful performance, is as engaging a Mike as Danner is an irresistible Tracy. And Frank Converse is suavely amusing as the observant Dexter. In her stage debut as Tracy's younger sister Dinah, Cynthia Nixon can already be counted a star, at least by today's standards. The versatile young actor Michael Gross is a splendid Sandy, the Lord son who has invited the reporting team with an ace up his sleeve, and Mary Louise Wilson gets a laugh with her every line as the photographer. Meg Mundy is fine, and has never looked lovelier, as the befuddled mother Margaret, and Douglass Watson gives a smooth account of Seth. There is other commendable work by Richard Council as the stuffed-shirt of a labor leader - a stick of a part, really - and by George Ede as Uncle Willie.
Director Ellis Rabb has used every inch of the vast setting lovingly, pacing the play confidently and getting the best out of everybody, even the household help who flit about arranging and rearranging furniture and flowers between scenes (there's a single intermission). Nancy Potts' costumes and John Gleason's lighting are exemplary in every respect. And there is some flavorsome string-quartet incidental music, though occasionally verging on the insipid (after all, this was Porter country; he even did the film musical version in one of his last efforts).
Great to have the Beaumont back, and in such style! This "Philadelphia Story" is, to use my least favorite expression in the play, very yar, indeed.
Glory, glory be! The Met strike is over, a strike with the New York City Ballet orchestra seems to have been averted, and, almost best of all, on Friday night after more than three long years of darkness, the Vivian Beaumont Theater, now with Richmond Crinkley as executive director, once more opened its doors, lit its lights and started to go about its business.
This, in effect, is the third Vivian Beaumont management. The first set off in 1966 with a controversial European classic, Danton's Death. When Joseph Papp eventually took over the theater seven years ago, he opened up shop with the world premiere - even more controversial - of David Rabe's The Boom-Boom Room. Crinkley clearly has a different hand to show.
Not a shadow of controversy either threatened or enlivened the latest opening - which was a revival of Philip Barry's great '30s comedy The Philadelphia Story. Of course, this could be called playing it safe. On the other hand, look at what happened to the other guy who didn't play it safe.
And, for that matter, how safe is the Philadelphia Story? Certainly the classic movie is a staple on late night television. But, interestingly and perhaps revealingly, the play itself has never before been given a full-scale New York revival.
However The Philadelphia Story is a comedy of ill-manners intended to enchant it did. Although the production - third night nerves? - for it had been given a gala performance Wednesday, and by one of life's little ironies the second night press had been invited to see it the day before the first-nighters, it did definitely suffer from energy lapses in the first act.
Yet a lot of the sluggishness at the beginning of this play, which ends in a blaze of glory and is one of Broadway's most sparkling comedies, can be blamed on Barry himself. The opening exposition of this story of Tracy, the rich, divorced ice-princess on the eve of her second marriage, is cumbersome. Nor did the director Ellis Rabb, seem to get it going fast enough.
But as the play gracefully takes over, so does Rabb and his actors, and then bubbles burst, sparks fly and funny, sweetly bizarre individuals emerge from behind their conventional dramatic shadows.
This was Barry's blessing and why, along with O'Neill, he is the greatest American playwright of the first part of our century. He didn't write plays about jokes, he didn't even write plays about bubbles and sparks, he wrote plays about people.
If Rabb's staging was too stylized at the beginning [this is not Sheridan or even Oscar Wilde] at the end he captured all of Barry's idiom and pace.
The Nancy Potts costumes are impeccable in their rememberances of things past, but John Conklin's setting, handsome enough in itself, fails to insist on the locational difference between the drawing room and the patio. There are some spiffy lighting effects by John Gleason, and subtle mood music by Claibe Richardson that sounds as full of quotations as Hamlet.
And the cast is a joy. If this Lincoln Center project is to become something approaching a national theater it will need to act big things well and slighter things superbly. This is a happy beginning, graced with two performances of surpassing style - Blythe Danner's wry, almost introspective Tracy Lord, and Edward Herrmann's gangling honesty as the intruding journalist, manage the considerable feat of virtually making one forget who played these roles in the movie.
Not all of the acting proved at this level, but none of it was less than decent, while Frank Converse as the likeably humane ex-husband, Meg Mundy as Tracy's grandly patrician mother, Cynthia Nixon as the cute, half-knowing kid sister and Mary Louise Wilson as a tough, wisecracking visiting photographer were markedly more than decent.
A good conservative start, perhaps in keeping with the mood of the country. In any event, probably the only alternative theater Lincoln Center can accommodate is New York City Ballet and even that can pass itself off as establishment.
During its relatively brief history, the Vivian Beaumont Theater has seen more than its share of noble theatrical hearts come to grief. Friday night, this playhouse reopened under the auspices of the newly formed Lincoln Center Theater Company, a most promising troupe that one wishes the very best. Just the same, it would be disingenuous to pretend that the company's initial offering is a rousing debut. Despite the presence of that most radiant of American actresses, Blythe Danner, Ellis Rabb's revival of Philip Barry's fizzy "The Philadelphia Story" is distressingly flat.
The problem is not the choice of play. This 1939 comedy is one of Broadway's wittiest and wisest romantic entertainments. True, it looks like a standard drawing-room confection: Barry tells of a self-possessed Main Line goddess who disrupts her household by falling in love with two men on the eve of her marriage to another. Yet the amusing plot, which also branches out to satirize American class distinctions and celebrity journalism, isn't the sum of Barry's achievement. As his characters are liberated by champagne and passion, they rise above both the play's story and conventions in surprising ways. "The Philadelphia Story" is finally moving as well as funny because it gives full life to its author's belief that "the time to make up you mind about people is never."
The play is very rarely revived - and for a very obvious reason. George Cukor's 1940 screen version, starring Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant and James Stewart, is a definitive "Philadelphia Story." Still, it is possible to sweep away memories of the film; Arvin Brown proved so in his revival at New Haven's Long Wharf a few seasons back. At the Beaumont, such success isn't within hailing distance, and the failure can't be blamed on the haunting images of Miss Hepburn, Mr. Grant and Mr. Stewart. Mr. Rabb's production is sufficiently misconceived that it goes astray before a single actor appears on stage.
The problems begin with the set, an inexplicable catastrophe that all but slaps you in the face as you take your seat. John Conklin's representation of a suburban Philadelphia mansion and its gardens looks as vast as a department store and just as cluttered. There's a veritable forest of furniture, much of it covered in riotous chintz and all of it competing with a jungle growth of vines, plants and flowers. Maybe Main Liners really did live like this, but in theatrical terms, this loud and busy menagerie is uninhabitable.
As a result, this "Philadelphia Story" become a play about interior decorating, not people. The set blurs our focus and seems to swallow up the cast like a huge Venus' flytrap. It also creates logistical problems that last all evening. The grand staircase, the site of several comic entrances, is so far in the distance that we seem to be looking through the wrong end of a telescope. The actors who arrive from this and other vanishing points must dash breathlessly across from an otherwise unused sitting room to reach the foreground. Once they do, they still seem knee deep in wicker. Nancy Potts's costumes and John Gleason's lighting don't come to their rescue.
The set is all too consistent with the rest of the production. Mr. Rabb, who brought just the right sheen to the 1975 revival of "The Royal Family," here conspires to make "The Philadelphia Story" look arch. Barry wrote in a bubbly, jazzy vein - this play was the source for Cole Porter's one original film score, "High Society" - yet Mr. Rabb sets his production to the incidental tea-room music of a string quartet. The director slows the evening's rhythm further by unnecessarily pausing before each scene so a cadre of servants can bustle about and shift a few props. (Sometimes they even add more flowers!) The cast must thrash its way through this stultified atmosphere to provide what little sexual or emotional chemistry it can.
The beautiful and intelligent Miss Danner is, in principle, an ideal choice for Tracy Lord, Barry's heroine. And she's indeed diaphanous in the moonlit, tipsy scenes of the play's second half. Her blond hair askew, her voice at its considerable throatiest, she's the kind of golden girl Fitzgerald wrote about. When she tries and fails to balance her three suitors, this Tracy not only awakens rapturously to the possibilities of life, but she also convinces us that those possibilities are infinite.
Unfortunately, the pathos of the character is partly missing. The play's main dramatic thrust concerns the heroine's transformation from a priggish, selfish society princess to a vulnerable woman with "an understanding heart." Early on, the delightful Miss Danner isn't entirely cold and forbidding, with the result that her metamorphosis isn't as thrilling as it should be. Nor do the men in her life seem powerful enough to turn her head. Frank Converse and Edward Herrmann seem well cast as the spurned former husband and prying magazine reporter who woo Tracy away from her stiff, nouveau riche fiancé (Richard Council), but their lust for the heroine never becomes erotic and all-consuming. Mere charm isn't enough to set the icy Tracy on fire.
The tensions and affection within the Lord family are also muted. Tracy's philandering father, her ditsy mother and her sly Uncle Willie are played in varying degrees of blandness by Douglass Watson, Meg Mundy and George Ede. They don't seem remotely related to one another, and they squander some of their brighter lines. Only two members of the supporting cast shine throughout: Cynthia Nixon, the attractive and stagewise girl cast as Tracy's kid sister, and the always reliable Mary Louise Wilson, who brings her wry timing to the role of Mr. Converse's wisecracking, photographer sidekick.
Any other pleasures of the evening are a testament to the indestructability of Barry's comedy. His wonderful climax - which brings the play's feelings and farcical subplots to a crescendo - is so exhilarating that even in this production it may send you out high. More likely still, it will send you to see "The Philadelphia Story" again - not at the Beaumont, sad to say, but at the movies.