CTC’s ‘Philadelphia Story’ is ‘staging at the highest level’

On the night before her wedding to another man, Tracy Lord (Carolyn Holding) listens unhappily as her ex-husband, C.K. Dexter Haven (Dave Quay), reveals how he felt about her while they were still married. Chautauqua Theater Company’s production of The Philadelphia Story continues through July 8. Photo by Eric Shea.

Anthony Bannon | Guest Reviewer

Identify the two characters that appear to have stepped out of a pose in the pages of the old Vanity Fair, and you’ll know the outcome of the American classic comedy The Philadelphia Story.

It is in the thrust of the chin, don’t you know, and in the arch of the back, and how one handles one’s wrist. It is in the genes, the well-borne genes, which make the grade and open the doors of high society, Philadelphia style. And there is no getting away from it, come either hell or high heaven or a variety of other topic sentences at work in this nutty play — topics such as blackmail, philandering, alcoholism and the moving target of marriage.

The marriage game — whether one is in it or out of it, and by the way, with whom? — is the core topic of The Philadelphia Story, written for Katharine Hepburn by Philip Barry, first on stage in 1939 and then on the screen in late 1940. It is hard to imagine the incredible circumstances that swirl around the nubile Tracy Lord, heiress to millions.

Hepburn casts a dark shadow on Tracy Lord, even through the intervention of more than 70 years. The play really was made for her.

Philip Barry knew that a lot of credibility could be hidden in the mysterious world of wealthy WASP ways, as well as in the equally enchanted world of the theater. He also knew that Kate Hepburn had the swagger to pull off the contrivances he wanted to establish.

But forget Kate. After five minutes on the Bratton Theater stage, young Carolyn Holding owns the part of the headstrong beauty who, in the course of 24 hours, must decide whether she marries an opportunist, a yellow journalist or her alcoholic former husband. It is a rough sail. But by the third act, her knowing glances to the audience acknowledge her victory over lunacy. This is her show. Entirely.

The windup of the play takes some time to establish its screwball set of circumstances: This willful, self-centered beauty leaves her alcoholic husband for a self-made coal mining magnate, as her father winds down an affair and the family of fruitcakes struggles in their socialite ways to maintain the appearance of a decorous balance in the face of an investigation and infiltration by sensationalizing journalists.

The take-home point of all this — the moral of the story — is that life on the surface (whether the surface of high society or of high-mindedness) offers little reward against the deeper values of virtue and love. It takes two acts to set that up and a rousing third act to resolve it with high-flying comedy.

Holding as Tracy Lord; her daffy little sister, played by Molly Bernard; and Dave Quay, the outgoing husband, hold the play through the story’s early hours. Those guys are really interesting. Yes, they are characters. Tomorrow, Tracy will be married, maybe to the coal man, and the family is aflutter over their father’s affair with a showgirl.

Holding’s performance is a full orchestration. Beginning with Hepburn’s long vowels (I don’t know why) and her clipped edges in diction, Holding brings the character quickly into her own voice, a range between throaty assertions and girlish coquetry. With lithe and dance-like body control, she owns the stage whenever she is on it, moving as if from one pose to another in a fashion shoot and making it seem absolutely natural for her to be haughty and assured, or vulnerable underneath. She will remarry tomorrow, and everything will go her way, no matter who might be her husband.

Dave Quay, her ex, enters the pre-nuptials with the assurance of his place along Society Row. He has the panache of a yellow ascot against blue, worn with an off-brown jacket, hands thrust into his pockets just so, his manner well-bred, though now with the confidence and heart of sobriety. He is a different man now: still in love, but not looking back.

Philadelphia’s story pulls on the unexpected for its turning points. Holding had no patience or compassion with Quay’s drunkenness back then, but it will take her own binge to find the heart that will set things straight.

And then it is the daffy little sister who leads the play to its conclusion, even though she is the silliest of the crew — seemingly unformed in every way, her songs out of key, her dancing more pratfall than pirouette, her pronunciations from another planet. Molly Bernard’s floppity mannerism are clownish exaggerations of adolescence, but she sets the play’s course on comedy and sails strong into the wind after seizing the rudder to steer the show home to a crazed but perfect resolution.

The lessons hold: Love wins out, and the main characters play into their opposite personae. Holding, terribly hungover, finds compassion; Quay takes charge; and Bernard speaks truth to lunacy, all while flouncing about, pulling on her braid and hitching her trousers: a virtuoso effect.

The amazing thing is the players are still students, yet with the real wings of professionals. Holding and Quay are in NYU’s graduate acting program; Bernard is in the M.F.A. acting program at Yale. A cast of 13 includes other students, notably the journalists who complicate matters and provide the springboard for Holding to learn life’s lessons. They are Kelsey Didion and Max Roll, also nearing the end of their college careers. Three Equity actors anchor the effort in supporting roles.

It’s all such a pleasure, staging at the highest level, and after a few missed cues in the beginning, it moves along with impeccable timing and integrity, led by production director Andrew Borba, now in his third year as CTC associate artistic director. Tom Buderwitz takes top-line credit for scene design, an indoor sitting room and an outdoor terrace on a turntable, drawing applause as it changed positions with the cast in choreography as the scene moved. Costumes by Tracy Christensen, by the way, were perfectly marvelous. Christensen should open a shop on the Chautauqua grounds.

The Philadelphia Story continues through July 8.

Anthony Bannon is executive director of the Burchfield Penney Art Center and a research professor at Buffalo State College. A former critic fellow at the Eugene O’Neill Memorial Theater Foundation, he previously served as an arts writer for The Buffalo News and director of George Eastman House in Rochester, N.Y.