It’s sunset at an elegantly appointed estate in Fenwick, Conn., and that means one thing: time for tea. And cookies — if only the absentee maid would remember the biscuits.
This quaint late-afternoon ritual is the prompt that sets iconic actress Katharine Hepburn off on a confessional conversation in Matthew Lombardo’s one-act play, “Tea at Five.” It is also a vehicle for another screen icon, Faye Dunaway, to return to the stage as Hepburn, owning the role of the grande dame in a business that is “not kind to old women.” Dunaway inhabits the role and goes beyond mere mimicry. Of course, she captures The Voice — waspy, reedy, patrician — but she also brings a mix of fragility and strength to the role, maintaining the straight spine but also letting that stiff upper lip quiver ever so slightly when grief overtakes her.
This is a woman who spikes the Earl Grey and throws a calla lily (yes, a calla lily) across the room in disgust, but she also succumbs to the shakes when talking about the death of her brother Tom, who took his life at age 15. The play takes a stab at psychoanalysis to humanize the inscrutable superstar, who ferociously guarded her privacy during a career that included stage and screen triumphs and a fair amount of flops. It sets Hepburn up as the “little girl who never really grew up” and who spent her whole life trying to please Father.
“Tea at Five,” which premiered at Hartford Stage in 2002, was originally a two-act play depicting Hepburn in her prime and in her golden years, but Lombardo rewrote it as a one-act specifically with Dunaway in mind. This type of play is a contrivance created to bring the audience into the home and heart of a fabulously famous person, like Truman Capote in Jay Presson Allen’s “Tru.” Whom is she talking to and why? Are we houseguests or interlopers? Every phone call is a manufactured excuse to learn something about the character. In this case, Hepburn has one-sided conversations with her doctor, her ex-husband “Luddy,” and Warren Beatty (Dunaway’s partner in crime in “Bonnie and Clyde”). The play is full of anachronisms, including that touch-tone phone. In one off-color anecdote, Hepburn recalls the actor John Barrymore revealing the crown jewels to her when she was a young star; she put him in his place, but in the #MeToo era, it’s just not funny.
Lombardo’s attempt to explain the inexplicable is skin-deep, and even his character knows it. More than halfway into the 75-minute performance, Dunaway wraps up a tale about the composer Stephen Sondheim, looks out at the audience with a sly grin and says, “You don’t want me rambling on about Sondheim. You’d much rather have me talk about Spence,” referring to her turbulent, decades-long relationship with co-star Spencer Tracy. “Why did I stay?” she asks. Who knows? It’s complicated. It always is in a dysfunctional, abusive relationship. The play concocts some sort of answer, but the words don’t feel genuine. In fact, when Hepburn’s niece Katharine Houghton saw the play in 2002, she said, “If my aunt saw this, she’d slit her wrists.”
That said, Dunaway gives a bravura performance, although on opening night, she was slightly rusty on her lines. The Broadway-bound production will bring her back to the Great White Way for the first time in 37 years, a triumph for an actress of a certain age. Both she and Hepburn complained — accurately — about the dearth of juicy roles for older women. Dunaway’s performance is the real deal. Sitting in a plush chair on Scott Pask’s stately set, she rocks back and forth, the picture of vigor and vulnerability. The sun has set. Snow falls. The grandfather clock is stuck in. But Dunaway is very much alive, and one can only hope she gets a chance to embody a role the way Glenda Jackson recently conquered King Lear. She deserves a stronger cup of tea.
TEA AT FIVE
Play by Matthew Lombardo. Directed by John Tillinger. Presented by Tea at Five, LLC. At Huntington Avenue Theatre through July 14. Tickets start at $49, 617-933-8600, BostonTheatreScene.com.