The Philadelphia Story is a play with contemporary conflict encased within the sepia-toned shell of old Hollywood America. Its relatively complicated social and sexual conflicts are cracks in the veneer of old-school American repression, yet their existence within spaces only the most privileged of the privileged exist in make them seem somehow exotic.
The story goes like this: Tracy Lord (Leighann Calamera), daughter of the incredibly wealthy, unfaithful Seth (Keith Zagorski), is set to marry a man with no discernable traits whatsoever named George (Tom Kolos). Once her alcoholic ex-husband Dexter (Everett Lowe) shows up to crash her wedding alongside a charming journalist named Connor (Eric Leslie), who is doing a profile of the Lord family against their will, Tracy finds herself lost in a series of romantic foibles that threaten her engagement.
The Philadelphia Story is first and foremost a smart, insightful comedy. Although the play occasionally spins its wheels on some comedy-of-errors set pieces, the majority of Philadelphia’s laughs are generated by its characters.
Fortunately, Little Lake’s production is smartly cast. Calamera’s Tracy is bubbly when she has to be but biting when she wants to be. Many of the play’s greatest interchanges come from Calamera’s ability to subtly shift between clueless socialite and sarcastic provocateur; a favorite moment of occurs during a conversation between Tracy and Connor regarding her family, in which Tracy suddenly gazes at the sunrise and congratulates God on doing a good job with it.
According to a piece of trivia within Little Lake Theatre’s playbill, The Philadelphia Story was based on the life of an uber wealthy socialite named Helen Hope Montgomery. The film adaptation was meant to be filmed in at Montgomery’s actual estate, but the director believed it to be simply too grandiose to work. “They thought that no one would believe anyone could actually live like that, especially in 1940’s America,” says the playbill.
This little detail sat in my subconscious during Little Lake Theatre’s production. The Lords are no Bennets, and the family history of our protagonist engenders no immediate empathy. When Connor lays into Tracy about the enormous excess that is her life, he’s obviously speaking out of turn, but he’s also hard to disagree with. This is a man who gave up on his fiscally unsound dream of being a novelist to write about people who, for the most part, really don’t do anything. Tracy senses his frustration and offers to literally gift him a summer home to pay for his living expenses, which is not a solution so much as an ignorant regurgitation of the problem.
Still, for Tracy, her wealth is a kind of trap. She is perpetually thrust in front of men who more or less assign her a personality, and dock her points for failing to comply with an invisible personality checklist they’ve composed in their heads. The social contrast between Tracy and Connor’s partner, the eminently likable photographer Liz (Carley Adams), is an important one. Liz exudes personality even in her most polite moments, but Tracy’s predetermined courtesy leaves her with a kind of classy inscrutability. Although she indulges in her privilege, the sexual politics of the day make her life into a kind of psychological prison.
There are plenty of ways to soften the blow of the play’s surprisingly flexible take on infidelity, but director Lora Oxenreiter appears to have taken a greater interest in the most difficult questions Barry’s script seems to ask. There’s an almost sloppy feel to the various monologues and revelations in the play’s highest moments of tension – not in terms of performance, but in terms of character. The veneer of her cast is something to be punctured, torn at, and shouted through when necessary.
Little Lake Theatre’s production of The Philadelphia Story is a bright, zippy comedy that commands the play’s complex themes as easily as it does the comedic repertoire of its cast. Fans of the film, in particular, are likely to find that there are a few new things to discover within the Lord estate.
The Philadelphia Story plays at Little Lake Theatre through June 3. For tickets and more information click here.
Special thanks to Little Lake Theatre for complimentary press tickets.
Photos courtesy of James Orr