“For years, opinion leaders have told us that it’s all about family values,” writes Paul Krugman, the New York Times emasculator extraordinaire of Bush’s voodoo economics. “And it is — but it will take a while before most people realize that they meant the value of coming from the right family.”
Indeed, if the Roaring ’20s died with the Great Depression, the NASDAQ Black Hole has relaunched that gilded age with a vengeance. Now more than ever, Philip Barry’s sparkling 1930s satire, The Philadelphia Story, has much to say about class, ambition and celebrity. Night owls love this gem from midnight cable screenings of the film adaptation starring Jimmy Stewart, Katharine Hepburn and, of course, Cary Grant. But the Hilberry Theatre’s live production brings a vitality to the material that the film’s ubiquity has sadly diminished.
It’s high times in the Lord household. Preparations are at a fever pitch for the impending nuptials between Tracy Lord (Jennifer Tuttle) and a self-made businessman, George Kitteredge (Andrew Huff). Her first pigeon has legendary status, if only for his name — C.K. Dexter Haven (Eddie Collins) — a moniker that could incite a death match of envy between Calvin Klein and Ralph Lauren.
Attending the lucky lady are her mother, Margaret (Shelly Gaza), and younger sister, Dinah (Amanda Jones). Much womanly yammering ensues until brother Sandy (Stephen Massott) arrives with exciting news. He’s taken the liberty of inviting a “famous” writer and photographer to the wedding. We soon learn that their fame is tied to their employer, a Philadelphia scandal sheet, and that Mike (Seth Amadei) and Liz (Christi Marsico) are not the type of people to whom embossed invitations are regularly sent. To further complicate matters, family patriarch Seth Lord (Josh Eikenberry) has failed to appear, leaving Uncle Willie, a corpulent gasbag played by Michael Anthony as Teddy Roosevelt channeling Benny Hill, to fill in.
These two interlocking trains drive the play into the second act. While Mike barely keeps his resentment from punching through a thin veneer of gratitude, Liz is much more sympathetic to the Lords and their alluring universe of privilege and comfort. Meanwhile, the Lords make blithe fools of themselves scurrying about in a vain attempt to stage-manage the wedding while papering over their own divisions.
The sets by Terry Jachimiak Jr. convey the false security of the Lords’ plush cocoon while allowing the cast to take full advantage of the Hilberry Theatre’s signature airiness as they frantically shuttle from one crisis to the next.
Director James Thomas might have given a thought to switching the roles of Ms. Tuttle and Ms. Gaza. Tracy is a skittish WASP, a tad conniving yet also dreamy, someone much more in keeping with Ms. Gaza’s carriage and demeanor. Ms. Tuttle, curvy and stern, would be far more convincing as the matriarch.
Author Barry wears kid gloves and never lands a knockout blow on these characters. They might be misguided, but their humanity is never in doubt. You sense that he’s less interested in mocking or demonizing individuals than exploring how the system influences people, how their dreams and ambitions are dictated to them and then thwarted. Perhaps this is why one watches that beguiling sprite Dinah so closely. Ms. Jones works wonders with this girl. One moment she seems quite envious of her older sister, the next you sense she’s wise to all the rubbish and would like nothing more than to remain a child. Dinah, like Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby, is our conduit into a bright and sad world that cannot endure. But we never doubt the judgment of these people or their survival, making the ride, for all its twists of fate and fortune, a pleasure.
The Philadelphia Story is indeed our story. J. Lo and Ben Affleck, Donald Trump and Lady Di, Robin Leach and Tina Brown all belong to its spirit. Yet the cults of celebrity and money have grown far more toxic, far more desperate than they were in Barry’s day. Ambition without humanity is a terrible thing. Here is a play that thankfully revels in the opposite.
The Philadelphia Story by Philip Barry is at the Hilberry Theatre (4743 Cass Ave., Detroit) through Feb. 1. Call 313-577-2972.Timothy Dugdale writes about books and theater for the Metro Times. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org