ORLANDO — On Sept. 1 1939, the Nazis invaded Poland, prompting Britain and France to declare war on Germany two days later — the start of World War II.
Poland would quickly fall to the Nazi aggression, and so would France, leaving Britain in a seemingly uphill crusade to stop the Nazi takeover of Europe.
The horrific scenes of war and brutality ravaging Europe were being watched from a distance by the United States, and while President Franklin D. Roosevelt wanted to provide as much assistance as possible to Britain, the American public had no appetite for joining the war. Americans watched the bombing raids on Britain, the fiery apocalypse across the continent, with no quick desire to having American soldiers endure anything similar.
For a nation still climbing out of the Great Depression, it would seem that Americans preferred pleasure diversions to confronting the appalling slaughter in Europe. And while Phillip Barry’s comical play “The Philadelphia Story” has nothing whatsoever to do with the war in Europe, it’s not that hard to notice subtle jabs of satire throughout the play about social elites, about the news media, and about those who had survived and depression and were now thriving financially.
At a time when Europe appeared at the start of one of the most horrific chapters in world history, the play notes, American elites were hardly worrying about the possible long-term impact of a Nazi conquering of Europe and what dangers it posed for us in the future.
Instead, we hear wedding bells, joyously ringing for the perky bride-to-be Tracy Lord. A prominent Philadelphia socialite, Tracy’s first marriage to C.K. Dexter Haven happened much too impulsively, and ended in divorce. Two years later, Tracy is ready to remarry during a ceremony at the Lord mansion, and her bridegroom is nouveau riche businessman and aspiring politician George Kittredge.
Problem is, as prominent as George is, he’s hopelessly dull and ordinary.
In the meantime, the tabloid magazine Spy sends reporter and photographer Mike Macaulay Connor and Elizabeth Imbrie to cover the wedding — since Dexter, who also works for the rag, arranged it in return for them not publishing a salacious story about Tracy’s father, Seth Lord, and his escapades with a New York showgirl. Oh, those high society scandals!
Mike and Liz don’t care much for this trite assignment but do it anyway — it’s a living, after all. Tracy begins to take a liking to Mike, while Dexter seems interested in possibly reconciling with Tracy. It all becomes — well, madcap.
Barry, a terrific comedic writer, has a lot of delicious fun satirizing the socialites — particularly in the way they’re so rigidly conscious of their image in society (hence the desire for a nice puff piece about their grand hoity toity wedding) while almost never actually living up to those moral standards. They lie, aim to deceive, and cheat shamelessly when anyone’s back is turned — but they clearly feel they can get away with it because of their social status.
Barry’s jabs at the tabloid media are as relevant today as they were in the 1930s, with a frustrated reporter who has no interest in writing about a society wedding but is stuck with it as his job. Why do we idolize people who hardly deserve the attention, simply because of their inflated bank accounts?
And in an almost eerie way, the horrors of war in 1939 very subtly echo through the play, which seems to ask, when so many genuine horrors are going on in Europe, how can these folks fret so obsessively over a wedding?
Mad Cow Theatre’s revival of the Barry play, which opened on Broadway in March 1939 as a vehicle for the great Katharine Hepburn (who would also star in the 1940 film version with Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart), captures the fast pace of a piece that uses witty dialogue and farcical situations to delightful effect. Mad Cow brings its usual finely tuned professionalism to the show, which has included bringing on a cast that knows how to milk the story for pure comedic perfection.
Piper Rae Patterson conjures up a dash of Hepburn in her role as Tracy, while still making the headstrong character her own, and Robert Johnston as Mike and Brian Brightman as Dextor are equally hilarious. More than a few scenes are stolen outright by Kennedy Joy Foristall as Tracy’s younger sister Dinah, who has a tendency to say whatever is on her mind, regardless of the consequences.
The play is clearly of a different era — comical references to Dexter’s excessive drinking and subsequent domestic violence against Tracy are squirm-inducing to watch today. But in most respects, the play still accomplishes what Barry may have set out to do in 1939: remind the world that the more “important” we get, the more we tend to stop paying attention to the rest of the world and engulf ourselves in our own trivialities.
Today, the United States is a nation at peace …. while we’re also watching from a distance the chaotic upheaval in the Middle East, with the rise of ISIS, the fall of Yemen, the slaughters in Iraq and Syria, the development of a nuclear program in Iran. Do we still need comedic diversions to keep us from obsessing too much about places that we’re comfortably far from?
“The Philadelphia Story” runs through April 19, with performances on Thursdays through Saturdays at 7:30 p.m., and Sundays at 2:30 p.m., at the theater at 54 W. Church St. in downtown Orlando.
For tickets, call the box office at 407-297-8788, Ext. 1.
Contact Freeline Media at Freelineorlando@gmail.com..