Shalom Life | July 01, 2014

Shaw Festival Review: The Philadelphia Story

Philip Barry’s "screwball comedy" doesn’t quite resonate with contemporary audiences.

By: Hermine Steinberg

Published: July 11th, 2014 in Culture » Stage » Reviews

As much as The Philadelphia Story may touch upon more substantive issues such as the rise of celebrity culture and class warfare during the Great Depression in the United States, the truth is that Philip Barry simply wrote this play as a vehicle for Kathryn Hepburn to showcase her talents and revive her career. How well the plot translates into 21st century sensibilities largely depends on the vitality of the actors and the expertise of the production team to bring this “screwball comedy” to life. Despite a beautiful set and a talented cast, The Philadelphia Story falls flat with few laughs and little relevance to modern audiences.

Before seeing the play I wondered whether my fond memories of the movies – both The Philadelphia Story and High Society – would get in the way of my enjoyment and appreciation of The Shaw production. However, while actually watching the play I found myself thinking that it was a good thing that I saw them both as the play itself would have been far more confusing and objectionable.

The curtains open to reveal William Schmuck’s extravagant set that immediately invites us into the world of the wealthy Lord family the day before eldest daughter, Tracy, is about to be married for a second time. We soon learn that she is recently divorced from a man who drank too much and struck her. We also learn that her father is having an affair with an entertainer in New York and is not expected at the wedding.

This scandal is about to be made public if not for her brother Sandy who has made a deal with the editor of the magazine to kill the story in exchange for allowing a reporter and photographer to have an inside look at how the upper crust lives and the inner workings of a wedding of “national importance”. The family who is not supposed to know about this deal prepares themselves for this intensive scrutiny. Of course, the humour is based on people who weren’t expected showing up, and romantic sparks flying in all the wrong directions. However, what you get to see in the movie versions that isn’t made clear in the play is the depth and complexity of Tracy’s relationship with her ex-husband, Dexter, who is not really a brute but her best friend.

In what is suppose to be a spirited comedy in which three young men end up lining up to marry Tracy never seems to get off the ground in the first half. What is completely lost here is that this is actually a coming of age story for a twenty-something year old young woman whose idealism and romanticism have been transformed into a shield; one which takes on the superficial appearance of perfectionism and intolerance. Disappointed and hurt by the men in her world she refuses to allow herself to be vulnerable and acquires a selective memory of past behaviour that she considers to be inappropriate or could expose her.

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