HIGH SOCIETY (Walnut): A curious Philadelphia Story

Excerpted by kind permission from Neals Paper.

Photo by Mark Garvin.
Photo by Mark Garvin.

The Walnut Street Theatre production of HIGH SOCIETY is a curiosity in two distinct and separate ways, one having to do with its performances, the other regarding Arthur Kopit’s unnecessary rearranging and cheapening of the show’s source, Philip Barry’s The Philadelphia Story.

The Philadelphia Story works on many levels. It has a strong story about one of America’s most elegant and glamorous society ingénues getting married. Weddings often lead to good plot lines, but HIGH SOCIETY gives designers a chance to go for swank, something the Walnut’s Mary Folino misses entirely, and lending characters a polished patrician air that exudes class but reveals the basic reality of the characters, as Grace Gonglewski does to great effect in her Walnut portrayal of the bride’s mother, Margaret Lord.

The bride, Tracy Lord (Megan Nicole Arnoldy), is a free spirit who has her own mind and speaks it candidly, She has been married once to C.K. Dexter Haven (Paul Schaefer), the independently wealthy boy next door who opts to use his largesse to leisurely sail the world . Dexter and Tracy each has a caustic side and can show impatience and flairs of temper. They agree that Tracy’s carping, especially, when she is in her cups, is the reason of their divorce.

After marrying for love and adventure the first time, Tracy is taking a more practical approach to husband Number Two. Her choice for the wedding about to take place is George Kittredge, who worked his way from being a Pennsylvania miner to managing a mining company, one owned in HIGH SOCIETY by the Lords.

Megan Nicole Arnoldy and Paul Schaefer in HIGH SOCIETY. Photo by Mark Garvin.
Megan Nicole Arnoldy and Paul Schaefer in HIGH SOCIETY. Photo by Mark Garvin.

No one in the Lords’s world has to work, but journalists Macaulay (Mike) Connor  (Ben Dibble) and Liz (Jenny Lee Stern) have a different lot. Mike makes his living writing exposes for Spy Magazine, but also has a serious, though poor-selling book to his name. Liz is a talented painter, who cannot put brush to canvas because she must use her camera to pay rent and eat. Mike and Liz are the unwelcome interlopers at the wedding, The class difference exist and are pronounced, but Barry uses them to show all people are the same and that Tracy can appreciate and understand Mike’s life and Mike can realize the truth and come to a similar understanding about Tracy’s. Mike and Tracy become attracted to one another for the genuine traits that simmer beneath their polished or rough-hewn exteriors. Unfortunately, that idea only emerges on paper at the Walnut, where secondary characters far outshine the leads.

Arnoldy has some fine moments as Tracy. She understands Tracy’s sense of humor, and her cool, direct way of presenting herself, but she excels in the role while singing and flags a little when it comes to tossing off Tracy’s sarcastic bons mots or creating chemistry between Tracy and any of her three love interests.

But Schaefer is totally off base as C.K. Dexter Haven, mistaking snobbishly aloof diffidence that shows no sign of personality or savoir faire for the easy nonchalance that more accurately denotes Haven’s “life-is-a-lark-let’s-not-be-so-serious” attitude. The usually reliable Ben Dibble never gives the hard-bitten journalist cum sensitive writer Mike a consistent personality: he’s an overly grumpy defender of the proletariat in the beginning and an immature, gymnastic lover in scenes that follow. The part that’s missing is the regular-guy romantic who may take a tough, realistic view of life but has a sardonic, rather than a mean, streak, and who can change his mind about people and situations when confronted with experience.

I knew how off-putting Schaefer and Dibble’s performances were when, at the Walnut, my preference for Tracy’s spouse was George, the stuffed-shirt parvenu that is supposed to be the joke, or goat, of HIGH SOCIETY. Jon Reinhold, who plays George, at least comes off as roundly human and as sincere about what he believes and wants. George is not the cardboard simp he is usually portrayed as being.

What Arthur Kopit had in mind when he adapted John Patrick’s 1956 screenplay of Barry’s 1939 comedy is the real mystery. One even the genius of Cole Porter cannot fully overcome.

Dennis Garnhum did a magnificently perceptive job in bringing all aspects of The Philadelphia Story to the stage at Canada’s Shaw Festival last year, finding all of the romance while highlighting all of the social commentary in Barry’s work. It elevated The Philadelphia Story from a smart entertainment to an intelligent and thorough bit of writing. What Garnhum did was special. But the Walnut’s HIGH SOCIETY doesn’t come near plumbing all that Barry or John Patrick put in the work. Director Frank Anzalone’s production remains firmly superficial, guided by plot and situation rather than romance or commentary. Read the full review >>>

[Walnut Street Theatre, 9th and Walnut Streets] September 8-October 15, 2015; walnutstreettheatre.org.

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