In the spirit of total transparency, it must be said that I would pay money to sit and watch Faye Dunaway do just about anything. Or, for that matter, absolutely nothing. My love for her runs deep. So it was very much with that same sense of adoration and awe that I eagerly lapped up Dunaway’s performance in the supposedly Broadway-bound Tea at Five, Matthew Lombardo’s recently retooled (but woefully featherweight) one-woman play about another great Hollywood legend, Katharine Hepburn.
The good news is that Dunaway has still got it: at 78 she is effortlessly luminous, and to spend any time in her company at all is to understand just how potent actual star power really is. Tea at Five is her first time back on the stage since she played Maria Callas in the 1996 National Tour of Master Class, and if Tea at Five really does make the leap to Broadway, it will be her first time appearing on Broadway in over 30 years. Dunaway has made the Boston to Broadway leap before: just weeks after graduating from Boston University in 1962, she made her Broadway debut in A Man for All Seasons. The rest, as they say, is history, and her Boston connection imbues this project with a special kind of symmetry.
Dunaway is as timeless, classic, and elegant as they come. And as a Hollywood legend with a long and iconic career, there are certain parallels between her and Hepburn that make Tea at Five’s “one legend becomes another” tagline ultra-appealing. Though to say that Dunaway truly becomes Hepburn is a massive overstatement and, as such, one of the issues with this John Tillinger-directed production. Sure, she’s wearing Hepburn’s reddish hair swept up in a bun (Tom Watson designed the hair) and Hepburn’s trademark red sweater tied over her shoulders (the costumes are by the great, 21-time Tony nominee Jane Greenwood), but Dunaway doesn’t really take on Hepburn’s physicality or one-of-a-kind voice. In several interviews, playwright Lombardo has said that Dunaway nailed the Hepburn voice during their initial meeting, so how that didn’t seem to end up in the final production is baffling. Of course, impersonation need not be a requisite element of playing a real person, but when someone as well known as Faye Dunaway is playing someone as well known as Katharine Hepburn, something more is needed to sell the conceit. As it stands, I had to continually remind myself throughout Tea at Five that I was hearing the anecdotes of Hepburn rather than Dunaway. We won’t ever really forget that it’s Dunaway up on that stage, but without inhabiting Hepburn just a little bit deeper, we won’t ever really believe that it’s Hepburn, either.
When Tea at Five premiered at Hartford Stage in 2002 with Kate Mulgrew, it was a two-act play that showed Hepburn at two different stages of her life: at 31 with a string of flops under her belt, uncertain about the future of her career, and then at 76, already a legend, as she recovers from a car crash. With Dunaway in mind, Lombardo has retooled the play into one act, focusing only on Hepburn at 76. Moving between a rocking chair, a sofa, and a kitchen chair, we hear a bit about Hepburn’s childhood, career woes, her 15-year-old brother’s suicide, and of course, her tumultuous, decades-long love affair with Spencer Tracy.
Despite being a little unsure of her lines every now and again, I found Dunaway to be mostly transfixing, even though her performance is less “Dunaway becomes Hepburn” and more “Dunaway reads to the audience about Hepburn” Overall, it isn’t really apparent that there’s much acting going on at all. Dunaway is at her best when the material allows her to do more than just read excerpts from Hepburn’s autobiography, such as when she recalls the suicide of her brother or the rawness of her rocky romance with Tracy.
Simply put, Tea at Five is not the ideal vehicle for Faye Dunaway’s triumphant return to Broadway. The play isn’t doing her any favors and I would be very surprised if the show opened in New York at all. Dunaway is a brilliant actress who deserves better than sitting on a couch and reading off dull anecdotes about Katharine Hepburn.
But if Tea at Five proves anything, it’s that Faye Dunaway is capable of carrying a play and that she belongs on the stage. Forget about tea, Dunaway deserves champagne.
TEA AT FIVE. THROUGH 7.14 AT THE HUNTINGTON AVENUE THEATRE, 264 HUNTINGTON AVE., BOSTON. BOSTONTHEATRESCENE.COM