GUESS WHO'S COMNG TO TEA?
Kate MulgrewStar Trek: Voyagers Captain Janewaysteers a course for Hollywood royalty as she channels Katharine Hepburn in a new stage biography. By Robert Kent
Every man has his muse. In fact, it was actress Kate Mulgrew who inspired openly gay playwright Matthew Lombardo to pen the Katharine Hepburn bio-drama. Tea at Five, which opened earlier this month at uptown's Promenade Theatre. Or more accurately, it was Mulgrew's physical resemblance to the four-time Academy Award-winner that led to the solo work's creation.
"I never ever imagined that I would write a play about Katharine Hepburn," confesses Lombardo, who recently directed the Off-Broadway comedy End of the World Party with David Drake and Jim J. Bullock.
However, after watching the actress as Captain Kathryn Janeway on Star Trek: Voyager, the playwright decided that Mulgrew was "born to play" the legendary Hepburn. Without hesitation, Lombardo wrote a first draft of Tea at Five. Through a mutual friend, the late actress Nancy Addison (to whom the play is lovingly dedicated), he then got his script delivered to Mulgrew.
"I was often compared to Katharine Hepburn," admits the strikingly refined Mulgrew, whose credits include the soap opera Ryan's Hope, Peter Shaffer's Broadway play Black Comedy and guest appearances on Cheers and Murphy Brown.
"But I never thought much about portraying her." Until she got Lombardo's script, that is. A day after reading Tea at Five, Mulgrew called the playwright and expressed an interest in moving forward with the project.
First staged last year in Hartford, Connecticutnot far from Fenwick where the two-act play is set and the 95-year-old Hepburn currently livesTea at Five enjoyed limited runs in Boston and Cleveland before coming to New York. Throughout the play's journey, the author graciously welcomed suggestions from director John Tillinger and his lovely leading lady. "When something wasn't working, we'd stop and ask would Hepburn say this?"
Decisions were based on research and, at times, speculation. For example, the real Hepburn has never publicly revealed the intimate details of her relationship with Spencer Tracy, but in Act II of Tea at Five, fact and legend merge as Mulgrew's Hepburn candidly discusses her affair with the actor. "I'm not putting words into her mouth," insists Lombardo. "I respect her immensely. This isn't a 'love letter' or vanity piece. We show [Hepburn] as a real person with vulnerabilities and tremendous strengths. I think she would like it. She was proud of being tough."
Appropriately, Lombardo allows his movie star to express how she truly feels regarding what's written about her: "I never read anything about myself unless it's true," says Mulgrew as Hepburn in a voice that's eerily familiar, "which means I never read anything about myself."
**Tea at Five is currently playing at the Promenade Theatre (Broadway at 76th Street). Performances run Tue-Fri, 8pm; Sat, 3 and 8pm; and Sun, 3pm. Tickets are $61.25; 212-239-6200. A limited number of student rush tickets are available for $25 (cash only, with proper ID) at the box office beginning at 5pm on the day of show.**