Dunaway finds Hepburn elusive in ‘Tea at Five’

Faye Dunaway as Katherine Hepburn in “Tea at Five.” Photo: Nile Scott Studios.

BOSTON – Playwright Matthew Lombardo said he spent 18 years rewriting his play “Tea at Five” with the actress Faye Dunaway in mind.

The new production of  “Tea at Five” is having a run through July 14 at the Huntington Avenue Theatre with an eye towards Broadway.

There are minefields galore in the work, even for an actress as distinguished and talented as Dunaway.

Start with the solo performance itself, in this case 70 minutes of non-stop dialogue, daunting for any actor or actress, perhaps moreso for the 78-year-old Dunaway.

When an iconic actress portrays another iconic actress, it can sometimes be hard to distinguish where one ends and the other begins

When Kate Mulgrew performed “Tea at Five” in Boston in 2003, she was performing a  markedly different show. That version which ran at the American Repertory Theater featured two acts – Hepburn at 31 and Hepburn at 76.

Lombardo said he received more positive response from Act II, so the rewritten piece begins in February 1983 with the 76-year-old Hepburn hors de combat in her Fenwick, Conn. home after suffering a broken ankle in a car accident.

Dunaway doesn’t really attempt to replicate the distinctive timbre of Hepburn’s voice.

And while the setting is Hepburn at 76, after “On Golden Pond,” this is Hepburn without the head shaking and the other tremors that were so prevalent in that film. She reportedly was suffering from essential tremors that affected her voice and head, but Lombardo, Dunaway and director John Tillinger have chosen not to include them; instead a reference to the possibility of Parkinson’s disease and an upcoming “test.”

In revising his piece, Lombardo has kept intact the most poignant and telling stories, including that of her relationship with her beloved older brother Tom, and discovering his body after he committed suicide at a young age. The coolness of her parents in the wake of the suicide was another telling blow.

At a recent performance Dunaway was hesitant at first, but did eventually capture the sass and spunk that marked the oft-cantankerous Hepburn. She was at her best in telling the backstage stories, including a head-on collision with a young Stephen Sondheim and most notably her tempestuous 27-year relationship with Spencer Tracy, marked as much by its downs as its ups.

She eventually gave up her career to take care of him.

Dunaway as Hepburn wonders openly if she stayed with “Spence” is because she was not able to stop her brother Tom from leaving her at a young age. She eventually confides to us that “All I ever wanted was a happy ending.”

Scott Pask’s living room in the Hepburn manse is handsomely appointed, giving Dunaway plenty of room to move around as Tillinger injects as much movement as possible.

Lombardo, Tillinger and Co. have smoothed the waters as much as possible for Dunaway, who hopes to return to Broadway after a 37-year absence.  But you do have to wonder if, in the attempt to make it easier to get her to the finish line, some of the critical essence of Hepburn has been lost along the way,

The audience at a recent performance didn’t think so, and perhaps the producers are counting on one iconic Oscar-winning actress portraying another iconic Oscar-winning actress as the way to success.

Ben Feldman, Scott Beck and Laura Z. Barket present “Tea at Five.” Written by Matthew Lombardo. Directed by John Tillinger. Scenic design by Scott Pask. Costumes design by Janes Greenwood. Lighting design by Kevin Adams. Sound design By John Gromada. At the Huntington Avenue Theatre through July 14. Tickets: Bostontheaterscene.com