Sophisticated ladies and comedies of manners

September 26, 2011

You might not ordinarily speak of Katharine Hepburn and Zora Neale Hurston in the same breath. But two current productions inspired by the women remind us of what they had in common: the capacity to observe and represent every detail of a very particular environment, like reporters embedded with a home-front army. Different as their milieus were--Hepburn's Connecticut-Yankee luxury might as well exist on a different planet from the down-home African-American communities Hurston portrays--they both reflected how culture and mores affect romance, family and status in a specific setting. Thus, sober as some of their stories may be, the shows involving Hepburn and Hurston are true comedies of manners.   

Court Theatre's Spunk is George C. Wolfe's lively adaptation of a trio of Hurston short stories, with music. (The music, performed by music director Kelvyn Bell as Guitar Man and the spectacular Alexis J. Rogers as Blues Speak Woman, is interwoven with the stories, but the show isn't a "musical"--the other characters don't sing.) At first I was uncomfortable seeing Court do another performance of "folk" black people so soon after its production of Porgy and Bess; we're not far enough removed from old stereotypes to be casual about scattering them around. But under Seret Scott's sparkling direction, Spunk quickly shows itself to be an account of the behavior of various African-American communities, as seen lovingly from the inside--a shift in perspective which makes all the difference. Though the stories that begin and end the evening share the serious theme of marital betrayal, the story-telling is so buoyant and the endings so satisfying that they belong in the comedy category. And the central scene is an out-and-out riot, as two Harlem "pimps"--meaning in this context gigolos--preen and compete and pretend to each other and themselves that they're great successes when in fact neither of them has a dime. If you're not familiar with the exhilarating ritual of "playing the dozens," get yourself down to Hyde Park to hear Kenn E. Head tell Chris Boykin, "Don't tell your grandmother how to milk ducks."

First Folio's Tea at Five, set in an elegant drawing room with the elegant Katharine Hepburn at two different stages in her privileged life, seems at first glance to be wholly different. But in Matthew Lombardo's script, Hepburn comes through as a woman forced to develop the brittle manners of the upper class to cope with a family in which public emotion was forbidden and all that mattered was the outward show of things. The account of her brother's death and her parents' cold reactions to it rivals Ordinary People for its portrait of the unfeeling rich. The excellent Melissa Carlson, ably directed by Alison C. Vesely, shows Hepburn simultaneously at home with success and power and woefully adrift on it--a sort of mirror image of the Hurston characters, who are simultaneously at home with their lives and battling to escape them.

At the Tea at Five matinee I saw, someone in the audience had a fainting spell that looked at first glance like a heart attack. Naturally, the show had to be stopped, a difficult circumstance for any actor; but Carlson and stage manager Kate Danziger handled it with extraordinary grace and care. (Carlson even ran to fetch the theater's defibrillator.) And once the crisis was past, she engaged directly and reassuringly with the audience. "I can finish if you want," she said, and we all applauded, whereupon she instantly switched not only into Hepburn voice but into Hepburn style, saying, "Let me put on my accoutrements and we'll get right to it." I'll remember the actress's grace under pressure long after I've forgotten what show she was in or who she was playing.