by Hugh Hunter
Check out the witty charm of “The Philadelphia Story” (1939), now on full display in director Noel Hanley’s revival at Allens Lane Theater. Complete with elegant set and lush costuming by Morgan McCoy, “Philadelphia” is all about the vivacious socialite, Tracy Lord, whose character was based on Helen Hope Montgomery Scott (1904 – 1995), a real-life Bryn Mawr socialite and philanthropist whom Vanity Fair once called “the unofficial queen of Philadelphia’s WASP oligarchy.”
In her 1940 movie version, Katharine Hepburn burned the character into everyone’s memory. Undaunted, Neena Boyle creates her own Tracy, a less imperious young woman whose ennui is more clearly visible. It is just two years since Tracy divorced fellow blue blood Dexter. She is equally impetuous in deciding to marry again, this time to nouveau riche millionaire George.
Thus, Tracy tries to erase the memory of the first marriage before absorbing its meaning. But the men in her social circle upset the apple cart.
Tracy’s impish kid sister Dinah (Angel James) invites Dexter to the pre-nuptial party. Oddly, he is the one character who knows who he is — a lay-about, heavy drinker who truly needs to have Tracy in his life. John Barker plays him as a cynical bystander, a hopeful loser who never accepted the divorce and tells Tracy she needs to be less queenly.
Two other men deliver the same core message. Her father, Seth Lord (Mark Grayson) explains he philanders with a young dancer because aloof Tracy failed to be the loving young woman in his middle age life, (and it seems playwright Philip Barry intends that you to take this seriously). While husband-to-be George (William McHattie) puts his foot in his mouth when he lauds his beloved for being a cold goddess who needs no one. (“But I want to be loved,” she protests).
“The Philadelphia Story” is a sub-genre, the “romantic comedy of remarriage” that became prominent in 1940s; Barry’s play stands out with its layers of meaning. Crucial to the plot are the machinations of rival gossip magazines (the internet of its day). Writer Macauley Connor (Vincent Raffaele) re-awakens Tracy’s ability to love; at the same time, his troubled relationship with his love interest, Liz Imbrie (Donna Bencivengo), is laid bare.
The high style and follies of the upper class are always fascinating. (Look at all those English shows.) The aristocratic setting is exotic, but every character in “Philadelphia” has foibles we easily recognize. The play is also about coming to terms with class. Barry looks at the well-born with affection but also has George say, “You and your whole rotten class … you’re all on your way out… and good riddance.”
In an odd way, George was right. This upper class is out. But what has replaced it is an unstylish elite that is more wealthy than ever, inspires no emulation and is more career white collar criminal in bearing than aristocratic. “The Philadelphia Story” now running at Allens Lane, comes across as both a charming high comedy and a challenging time capsule.
Allens Lane is located at 601 W. Allens Lane. “The Philadelphia Story” will run through Jan 26. Tickets available at 215-248-0546.