The Philadelphia Story
By Adam Langer
A key line in the history of comedies dealing with class and manners comes at the end of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, when hapless Malvolio, who’s endured endless abuse for having aspirations beyond his own class, storms away from his torturers growling, “I’ll be revenged on the whole pack of you.” An eerie moment often inexplicably played for laughs, it effectively sums up the futile hopes of a whole passel of characters punished for seeking to rise above their station.
That scene is crucial to both Moliere’s Tartuffe and Philip Barry’s The Philadelphia Story, running in rotating repertory at Court Theatre. When Barry’s rags-to-riches George Kittredge ultimately fails to marry into the old-money Lord family, he storms out snarling, “You’re on your way out, the whole lot of you,” essentially paraphrasing Malvolio. And when the once poverty-stricken Tartuffe strides in near the end of the play wearing an absurdly gaudy outfit reminiscent of Malvolio’s cross-gartered regalia, his immediate fall from grace serves as a warning to all scurvy lower-class types who aim for haute-bourgeois status.
Yet today Tartuffe–written more than 320 years ago–seems more relevant and insightful than the 1939 Philadelphia Story, because it critiques class immobility while The Philadelphia Story is just a symptom of it. Though Tartuffe is clearly a liar, a creep, and a hypocrite, Moliere manages to suggest that these are the very qualities that allow him to rise in this society; though the audience may be heartened by his defeat, at the same time that defeat is rather sad, just as Malvolio’s is. But when Kittredge suddenly decides he’s had enough of aristocratic idiosyncrasies, it’s little more than a plot device that allows like classes to remain together. Tracy Lord is left to try a second marriage with old-money C.K. Dexter Haven, the working-class newspaper couple Liz Imbrie and Mike Connor remain together, and the presumptuous, dunderheaded Kittredge winds up an object of mockery, forced like Malvolio to figure out for himself that some are born great, some achieve greatness, some have greatness thrust upon them, and some should never try for it in the first place.
Tartuffe, when it’s regarded at all these days, is usually perceived as a satire of religious hypocrisy–and it was probably intended as such. But Daniel Fish’s exceedingly intelligent and deftly directed production, unlike more traditional Moliere stagings, forces the audience to consider class issues, not simply trusting to the farce of Moliere’s comedy but to the force of his ideas. Mark Niebuhr’s daringly frank and vulnerable portrayal of the eponymous antihero, who uses a facade of religious piety to insinuate himself into the home of the clueless bourgeois Orgon, humanizes Tartuffe, whose chicanery is every bit as unavoidable as it is immoral. This Tartuffe is patently a fraud and a lecher, but it’s a tragic flaw of his society that he’s able to succeed only through deception. A truly pious and ascetic man would have no means to achieve the luxury afforded to Orgon and his family–nor would he desire it. It’s no accident that Tartuffe’s one moment of unabashed honesty, when he declares his forbidden love for Orgon’s wife, is what precipitates his downfall.
This Tartuffe reveals its depth slowly, gradually stripping away farcical comedy in favor of reasoned, relevant social commentary. Court Theatre’s staging may begin with Rick Jarvie’s hilarious punk-rock wigs and pancake makeup and Kaye Voyce’s over-the-top courtesans’ outfits, suggesting the worst excesses of slapstick Moliere productions. But by the play’s climax the makeup, the ridiculous wigs, and the outrageous costumes have disappeared and Tartuffe has become a deeply complex and human comedy. When Tartuffe pursues Orgon’s wife, Elmire, with unbridled lust as the concealed Orgon watches, the scene isn’t a mere game of cat-and-mouse gymnastics but an alternately hilarious and terrifying battle between predator and prey, beginning as light sex comedy but concluding as a harrowing scene of near rape. The final moment of Fish’s staging, in which the fallen Tartuffe begins to devoutly utter a prayer–a moment that does not occur in the Richard Wilbur translation–may go a bit too far, suggesting either a sudden conversion or a new form of hypocrisy. But refreshingly it reflects a philosophical take all too rare in Moliere productions, seeking to make this 1669 comedy more than a period piece, more than a respectful but pointless resuscitation.
Fish’s graceful transition from the ridiculous to the profound is greatly aided by a stunningly designed production and a letter-perfect cast: aside from a couple of strange pronunciations and some needless emphasis of rhymed words, their pacing and characterizations couldn’t be better. Especially effective are Lisa Dodson, who cunningly and sympathetically portrays the coy Elmire’s transformation into heroic martyr, and Kate Fry, whose portrayal of Orgon’s daughter inspires both laughter and empathy. The ever-reliable John Reeger is an appropriately blustery and hopelessly gullible Orgon, and Barbara Robertson is hilariously saucy and precocious as the scheming maid Dorine; the rest of the cast fill out their roles with impeccable timing. Never have I seen a production of a Moliere play so faithful to the script and yet so consistently inventive and challenging in its point of view.
Would that I could say the same for Court Theatre’s competently performed The Philadelphia Story, which has its witty and engaging moments but remains in the realm of pedestrian period comedy. Though this staging features top-notch production values, a generally first-rate cast (most of whom are also in Tartuffe), and stunningly realized stage pictures, under Charles Newell’s direction it resembles a community-theater effort, never questioning the status quo the play frequently buttresses. And the piece is so familiar, given its numerous productions by colleges and local troupes, not to mention the eternally rebroadcast film version with Jimmy Stewart, Cary Grant, and Katherine Hepburn, that one would hope for more than a professional but uninspiring revival. Though Virgil Johnson’s costumes are stunning as always, and Todd Rosenthal’s set is tasteful and elegant, the production hardly ever ventures beyond the surface of a rather dated play.
Yet there’s plenty of peculiar subtext to be explored. The play is surprisingly racy for 1939. But Barry’s conservatism–which dictates that the brilliant, beautiful moon goddess Tracy Lord remarry C.K. Dexter Haven, an alcoholic, possibly impotent prep-school product given to spousal abuse–makes The Philadelphia Story a tough sell in the 90s. The script is frequently witty but chock-full of outdated sexual and social attitudes: a predatory, ass-pinching uncle is played for laughs, there are a couple of wife-beating jokes, and in one bizarre sequence Tracy’s father blames her for his extramarital affairs by claiming that it was her coldness that drove him to it. Yuck. By playing these moments straight, Newell misses an opportunity to critique the society Barry represents.
One of the play’s themes comes from a proverb that the writer Mike Connor quotes to the unattainable Tracy: “With the rich and mighty, always a little patience.” Which is fine when the wealthy concerned are the immensely charismatic Hepburn and Grant, but not when they’re the adequate but not overendearing Kate Fry, Christopher Donahue, and the rest of the Court cast.
Why is it a given that Tracy should refuse offers of marriage from both the working-class Connor and the apish but earnest self-made Kittredge in favor of the morally dubious Haven? The only answer this production offers is a class-based one, that we should not stray from our stations. Hardly revolutionary stuff in a play that attempts to satirize the foibles of “the privileged classes enjoying their privileges,” as the purportedly antiestablishment writer Connor puts it. Given ideas such as these, one hungers for the pleasures of a modern writer like Moliere.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Tartuff stage photo; The Philadelphia Story stage photo.