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Kate: A Celebration/Auntie Mame

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KATE: A CELEBRATION

Royal George Theatre
Center Cabaret

Cissy Conner does a mean Katharine Hepburn--also a sassy, spunky, passionate, and grouchy one. Conner is a United Airlines stewardess who has impersonated Kate the Great for in-flight announcements and, on the ground, at the Gentry cabaret and in Look at Me at the Apollo Theatre--so she clearly savors her second life as a Hollywood legend.

With good reason: she doesn't just capture the young Hepburn's lilting, rapid-fire delivery, her dreamy, sometimes vacuous coo, her tart New England accent and zest for reducing words to squeaks; she doesn't just imitate today's 84-year-old doyenne, with her wistfulness and her warble. Conner in fact delivers much of Hepburn's celluloid soul, from the hopeful, eager ingenue of the 1933 Morning Glory to Mary Tyrone's dark resignation in the 1962 Long Day's Journey Into Night.

What Conner and Kate: A Celebration don't convey is the person behind the glowing screen image. Spanning over half a century, this three-act one-woman "magical comedy" is maddeningly unfelt, a name-dropping, bromide-heavy bio play that teases us into expecting revelations that don't materialize. Instead we get distracting tidbits, only one of which--Hepburn's description of Spencer Tracy's poignantly unremarkable death--is developed enough to move us.

The awkward assumption in Kate, written and directed by Don Hayes, is that the audience are guests in Hepburn's Manhattan apartment, "witnesses to life" who will listen respectfully as three progressively older Hepburns spill their collective guts, supposedly as spontaneously as Hepburn did in her autobiography, Me.

The young Kate of the 1930s, who argues with the curmudgeonly elderly Kate (in a voice-over), is as perky as memory recalls. "I'm not God, but I'm damn close." She performs a long scene from Morning Glory (the Broadway hopeful's audition), then a weirdly executed bit from Little Women (a plant from the audience tries to faint on cue), and the much-mocked "calla lily" speech from Stage Door, which Conner reclaims from cliche. Though Conner performs with the requisite radiance, the script seldom follows through on any topic, and we learn nothing new. I mean, who doesn't know Dorothy Parker's sneering remark in a review of Hepburn in The Lake: that she runs the gamut from A to B? (Apparently Hepburn agreed, but what she has to say about Parker is bitchy without being witty.)

In the second act, from the 40s and 50s, Hepburn gossips halfheartedly about her first sexual experience, Cary Grant (compared to a "scrumptious hot fudge sundae"), George Cukor, Jed Harris, Margaret Sullavan, Howard Hughes (secret backer of The Philadelphia Story), Leland Hayward, and Leslie Howard. But nothing here would stop the presses.

In the play's one splendid moment, the mature Katharine of The Lion in Winter and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner shares the eerie sound of Spencer's death, a bump in the night followed by an unaccustomed silence. Now all she has are memories and palsy: "I thought [tremors] were reserved for mountains or faults." But then she unleashes her patented plucky resilience, declaring herself an "institution" and vowing to live to 110, "squeezing out every ounce of life."

Unfortunately, Kate does just that to Hepburn. Hayes has said that he wrote the play in four months, then refused to change a word. Self-conscious and unfocused, Kate isn't that perfect: Hayes seems to forget that casual confessions require a conversational flow, not choppy, unrevealing meandering. Conner's Hepburn keeps announcing what she's going to do ("Let's get on with it!"), but she seldom does it. It doesn't help that the play pays no attention to such Hepburn favorites as The African Queen, Holiday, and On Golden Pond, that it ignores Bogart and Fonda and Hepburn's spicy opinions on politics and cinema today.

If only Conner were just doing excerpts from Hepburn films. That, like Jim Bailey's awesome re-creations of Judy Garland and Barbra Streisand, could be a joy--a real celebration.

AUNTIE MAME

Athenaeum Theatre Company

Fully as flamboyant as Hepburn is the legendary Auntie Mame, exuberantly memorialized in Patrick Dennis's sprightly memoir, then in Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee's witty stage adaptation. Perfectly constructed and filled with razor-sharp lines, Auntie Mame lovingly shows how Patrick, a ten-year-old Chicago kid sent to live with his wicked aunt in New York, domesticates the irrepressible Mame Dennis. Initially surrounded by bootleggers, bohemians, thespians, and west-side jetsam, free spirit Mame slowly sobers up and slows down, developing into a sort of mother. But if Patrick and the Great Depression turn her into a responsible sybarite, nothing can dampen the enthusiasm of a woman whose credo is "Life is a banquet, and most poor sons of bitches are starving to death." Luckily Patrick gets to dine to repletion.

At her most protective, Mame saves the grown-up (and now meanly conservative) Patrick from marrying into a sneering set of country club Babbitts. In fact one reason the 37-year-old play remains young is the currency of Mame's foes: bigots, snobs, proto-yups--they're as current as a cellular phone. Then too--as Harold and Maude, Zorba, A Thousand Clowns, and Cabaret prove--audiences love to be told to live (with a !) and especially enjoy doing it vicariously, through such characters as Mame.

Though it gets off to a stiff start, this Athenaeum Theatre Company revival, charmingly staged by Ray Scott Crawford, wisely allows a smart script to work its splendid spell. Few shows so kindly indulge overacting; the kind of hamminess that would warrant a citizen's arrest elsewhere is de rigueur here. But Mame herself can't be outsize: she's the measure by which we judge everyone else. Wisely, Mary Hay brings unforced conviction to the part; though no one can match Roz Russell's efficient hilarity, Hay builds the comic momentum like a trouper, overlaying it with the maternal concern Patrick has inspired. As the young Patrick, Doug Johnson deftly plays the wide-eyed observer; as the older Patrick, Glen Brown captures the lad's snobbish reaction to a childhood spent among stylish misfits (happily, he outgrows that, too).

As Mame's bosom buddy, the alcoholic tragedienne Vera Charles, Margot Aspen could be a bit louder, while Jan Wiezorek as the fussbudget lawyer Babcock could be softer. Well-honed comic stereotypes come from Reid Ostrowski as Mame's oilman hubby (his ancestral home is in Peckerwood, Georgia); Robert Tenges as a pseudo-Irish literary con artist; Carol Wilson as Mame's cracked-belle rival; Mary Lou Ahlenius, tearing into the role of Mame's ferociously loyal Irish maid; and especially Jill Burrichter as mousy, nerdy Agnes Gooch, a self-described sponge who soaks up Mame's lessons so well she becomes great with child.

In Bob Van Tornhout's serviceable but budget-conscious set design, the paintings cleverly change--or disappear--to indicate Mame's changing fortunes. Ian Flynn's vastly varied costumes are fashion caricatures that deserve a second life. But classy as the costumes may be, the truth is Lawrence and Lee's brilliant dialogue supplies all the class Mame needs.

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