Sometimes you meet famous people when you attend the theatre in London — I did at a recent performance in early June. I attended the new London version of The Philadelphia Story which though most people know by the Katharine Hepburn-Cary Grant movie, was originally a play. Indeed, it had been originally customized to Hepburn. The one in London is being done this year while Kevin Spacey is the artistic director of the Old Vic Theatre. He also stars as CK Dexter Haven. Jennifer Ehle has the starring role of Tracy Lord, and she makes the part her own. You may remember her as Lizzy Bennet from the British miniseries Pride and Prejudice. But more on this play later.
I hadn’t been to the Old Vic Theatre in years, indeed not since Patrick Stewart was doing his one-man version of “A Christmas Carol.” Back then I thought I’d go to the stage door around back to meet Captain Jean-Luc Piccard of Star Trek‘s USS Enterprise. So did a couple of hundred other “Star Trek: The Next Generation” fans. While I did not get to meet him, I did get close enough to breathe the same air molecules. But that was all.
One time though, my waiting at the stage door paid off. I waited behind the Wyndhams Theatre in London following Dame Diana Rigg‘s performance in “Medea,” for which she subsequently won a Tony on Broadway. It’s a real Greek tragedy: everyone dies in the end… and she kills them. Dame Diana breezed out 45 minutes after the show and apologized to the two of us
waiting for autographs. I said I’d been following her career since the TV show The Avengers in the ’60s. She cooed, “Oh, the black and white ones?” She signed my program and I floated back to my hotel.
The night I attended I had a good seat in the second row of the stalls (translation: first level of the balcony) and during the second interval (translation: intermission, and yes, there were two) across the row in front of me walks Rosemary Harris returning to her seat. I could not take my eyes off her. You know her as the kindly Aunt May Parker from the original Spider-Man movies, but back in her day she was an actress of great renown and prowess both in London and on Broadway, having won Tony, Obie and Emmy awards. She has appeared opposite Richard Burton, Laurence Olivier, and Michael Redgrave.
I spoke with her for a few minutes as we left the show. Her presence there was significant for two reasons. First, she mentioned that she had done 5 plays in this same theater, indeed, I pointed out her picture is on the wall with Peter O’Toole in Hamlet in 1963.
But second and more importantly, the starring role of tonight’s play was her daughter, Jennifer Ehle. I told her that I thought her daughter had done a marvelous job in the role, and I asked her what she thought. She thanked me and said she was quite proud to watch her. I asked her if it was a thrill seeing her daughter perform in the same theatre that she had performed in back in 1963. She said yes and that she had to pinch herself… and that she had also performed here along with Richard Burton in Othello “in 1954, or was it 55?” (It was 1956.) And she had done Julius Caesar, Troilus & Cressida, and Uncle Vanya, and she couldn’t remember them all, there were five.
I told her that her daughter had made the part her own, and so she had. The play is a bit different than the movie, where Tracy Lord’s brother Sandy is absorbed into the role of C.K. Dexter Haven, making Cary Grant’s role much larger in the movie. In the play, the lines and the plot elements go to her brother, consequently, C.K. Dexter Haven has a rather smaller role. Ms. Elhe is the dominant role and she embodies the character so that you forget that she’s not the person you usually associate with the role. Her vocal range and presence on stage gave her a gravitas that grows on you. Her “American” accent was almost flawless, as were most of the British Actors. Her younger sister Dinah was played with whiny adenoidal delight by Talulah Riley in her stage debut. Nicholas Le Prevost’s Uncle Willy was a particular delight with a somewhat expanded role. Julia McKenzie’s Margaret Lord was a special breath of off-handed humor.
Kevin Spacey, as I mentioned, had a smaller role than expected, but he had fun with it. He delivered some of his lines as W.C. Fields or Groucho Marx. He was nimble and light on his feet and seemed almost outside the play at times. He did with volume and anger what Cary Grant did with tone and eyebrow. But Spacey’s emotion revealed nuances I hadn’t caught in my dozen viewings of the movie, and he can throw away a line like nobody but Sean Connery as 007.
As I left the play, Ms. Harris and I spoke for only three or four minutes, but at 78 she is gracious and poised. I told her it was a treat to meet her and she thanked me as we parted and walked off into the night.
Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood theatre buff