HOLLYWOOD BABBLE ON

OpenStage Theatre's production of The Philadelphia Story, now running in Fort Collins, proves once and for all that unemployed rich people dashing about trying to find true love in romantic comedies are no longer interesting. Whenever their plight did engage us in the Hollywood films of the past, it was only because charismatic actors like Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn, Grace Kelly or Carole Lombard played them. But in a role that requires us to care if a rich perfectionist learns to tolerate the faults of others, anything less than a star is doomed to failure.

On the eve of Tracy Lord's marriage to self-made tycoon George Kittredge, her first husband shows up, invited by her mischievous little sister, Dinah. Dinah doesn't like the new brother-in-law prospect and wants the old one back. First husband Dex is still in love with Tracy, so Dinah's prank meets with his approval. It seems that when he was married to Tracy, he had an alcohol problem; she couldn't take his weakness and left him.

Tracy's dad, Seth, has not been invited to the wedding, because he ran off with a young dancer and Tracy is deeply displeased with him. But young Dinah--and even old mom--thinks she's overreacting. You'd never know it from the events of the play, but Tracy is supposed to have inordinately high moral standards that no normal person can live up to. When the uninvited father crashes the party, the jerk actually blames Tracy's goody-two-shoes outlook for his own philandering.

Meanwhile, a reluctant society photographer and a more reluctant newspaper reporter arrive to cover the wedding. The reporter harbors animosity toward rich folks. Naturally, though, he falls for Tracy, who proves to him that prejudice is always limiting--even when it's directed at the very wealthy and inherently useless.

Tracy has to learn her own lesson of tolerance, and the only way she can is through a humiliating fall of her own. She gets drunk and goes for a midnight swim in her birthday suit with the stunned reporter. The next day--her wedding day--she can't remember if she enjoyed illicit carnal knowledge of the journalist or not. The whole affair puts a crimp in her plans to marry the rigid, bourgeois Kittredge, who doesn't think he wants to marry a girl who slept with another man the night before their wedding. The cad.

It's a romantic comedy, a comedy of remarriage, in fact, so we know from the beginning how it will end. But it's difficult to care. Why don't these people do something useful with their lives--get a job, open a factory or dish out meals in a soup kitchen? We've come a long way since playwright Philip Barry's silly script made any sense. When the hit Broadway comedy was written in the Thirties, great wealth still seemed glamorous to most people.

Oddly enough, we can still watch George Cukor's 1940 film version with a minimum of wincing. That's because Cukor was a brilliant director, the Hepburn/Grant team was first class, and in those days no one objected too much to men blaming their own bad behavior on women. Even the Fifties film version with Grace Kelly worked, because the expectations of that prim decade needed a little jolting. But now the empty sentiments grate on the nerves.

Not all the problems lie with the script, either. There's plenty wrong with the character conception and pacing in this production, too. Jo Hayes plays Tracy as a nice, normal middle-class girl--too nice to pass for an intolerant, moralistic perfectionist. Because we never believe she is the "virgin goddess" others accuse her of being, her self-discovery feels phony.

L. Michael Scovel looks acutely uncomfortable as the persistent Dex. Bob Holt gives us a cardboard-cutout Seth. And nobody gets the class thing right. The only real bright spots are the amusing antics of Thom Wagstaff's goofy Uncle Willy and the lively realism that Jeff Gray as Kittredge and Mandy Johnson as Dinah bring to their roles.

OpenStage tries hard, but the material underwhelms the actors, and director Shela Jennings doesn't time the jokes well enough to keep the show moving. There were far too many gaffes in the opening-night performance--as if the cast needed another week of rehearsal. A charming, realistic set and the few crafty performances help, but in the end, they can't mitigate the inanity of the story. Rent the movie.

The Philadelphia Story, through November 26 at the Lincoln Center, 417 West Magnolia in Fort Collins, 221-6730.

 
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