Faye Finds Kate :: Playwright Matthew Lombardo on 'Tea at Five'

by Robert Nesti

EDGE National Arts & Entertainment Editor

Friday June 28, 2019

"This is a great story," assured Matthew Lombardo, the playwright behind such plays as "Looped," "High" and "Tea at Five," which is heading to Broadway after a three-week engagement at the Huntington Avenue Theater with Faye Dunaway. Having worked with Kathleen Turner, Valerie Harper, Kate Mulgrew, Stephanie Zimbalist, Charles Busch and presently Ms. Dunaway, Lombardo is, no doubt, filled with great stories.

This one was about when Ms. Dunaway arrived at a lunch at Joe Allen's to talk to Lombardo and director John Tillinger about a prospective production of "Tea at Five," Lombardo's one-person piece about Katharine Hepburn that had been a success — especially in Boston — when it was produced at the Loeb Drama Center in 2002 with Kate Mulgrew as Hepburn, a production that later returned to Boston's Shubert Theatre two years later. Other actresses played the role in productions throughout the country, but the current production — here reworked for Ms. Dunaway — brings the play to Broadway for the first time with a true Hollywood legend playing another Hollywood legend.

"She comes in. Her hair is up. She is wearing the beige, gabardine slacks, the black turtleneck, the red sweater tied over her shoulders like Hepburn. She sits down at the table and does the first five minutes of my play from memory in the Hepburn accent. We were just blown away."

Ms. Dunaway got the part.

Now with just days before opening, Lombardo is surprisingly relaxed, despite the pressures involved in stewarding a new version of the play that established him 17 years ago to Broadway with a Hollywood icon in tow. "I'm okay. It is stressful and it is wonderful, and all those things combined. It is actually a really rewarding experience. I am trying to stay in gratitude right now."

Just speechless

EDGE: What was your reaction to Ms. Dunaway's performance at Joe Allen's?

Matthew Lombardo: We both looked at each other and were just speechless. Her attention to detail, she goes so deep with the character, that she propels everyone else to do their best work. I believe Faye Dunaway is one of the great American actresses, ever. In that moment, sitting at the table having lunch, I could see Hepburn in her because she can do anything.

EDGE: How did this production come about?

Matthew Lombardo: Faye was looking to do a play and her assistant is a friend of mine. He knew that I wrote very strong female characters, and I was looking to do a revival of "Looped," thinking that Faye would be great as Talullah Bankhead. I sent her the script and she called me back and said, "I really like this play, but I hear you have a play about Katharine Hepburn. Can I take a look at it?" I said, "Sure. But let me do a little rewrite on it."

I did that, and remember sending it to her at 5:30 on a Monday. The next day I woke up and had this lovely message from her as to how much she loved the play and wanted to do it. It happened very, very quickly. This happened in November of last year. I wanted to bring back John Tillinger, the director who did the original, because we had done so much work on Hepburn; and Faye knew that.

A rewrite

EDGE: What do you think attracted her to Hepburn. Did she ever explain that to you?

Matthew Lombardo: I know that there is something in that script — something in the life of Hepburn — that parallels Faye Dunaway. They both hit stardom at an early age. They had some career stumbles, but they continued to overcome them and survive in an industry that is not kind to women.

EDGE: When you first wrote the play, you had Kate Mulgrew in mind. Now you have done a rewrite. What changes have you made to fit it to Faye Dunaway?

Matthew Lombardo: It had a complete overhaul. Originally "Tea at Five" was a two-act play. In act one, she played Hepburn at 31-years old; and in the second, at 76-year old. It was a great concept for the initial version, but the execution was weak, because people enjoyed the first half, but they really responded to the second. That is the Katharine Hepburn they knew. So what I did was a complete rewrite making it a 90-minute, no-intermission conversation with just the 76-year old Hepburn. What that affords the character is the ability to look back at her life in a way that is more objective. She can look at her successes and look at her failures and explore the reasonings for the relationships she chose. You look at John Ford or Spencer Tracy — both Irish Catholics, both at the top-of-their-game artistically, and both struggling alcoholics. Even Howard Hughes, whom she was involved with. These were broken men she tried to fix. And I think this goes back to her brother Tom who committed suicide when she was 14. I think this haunted her whole life. She always wanted to save others because she couldn't save her brother.

EDGE: What were the pitfalls involved in one Hollywood legend playing another Hollywood legend?

Matthew Lombardo: I don't think they are any. I think it enhances the production to have a movie star playing a movie star. Only Faye Dunaway could understand Katharine Hepburn because they have had these huge careers. And, like I said, surviving in Hollywood as woman is very rare and that is something that both Katharine Hepburn and Faye Dunaway have done effortlessly.

A new story

EDGE: You got to know Katharine Hepburn through your research now nearly 20 years ago. What did you get to know about her that surprised you?

Matthew Lombardo: There is something in this version of "Tea at Five" that was not in the original. And this is great because this is for a gay website. There was a book called "Kate Remembered" where she talked about death of her brother Tom and she didn't want its author, A. Scott Berg, to publish this until after she died.

The story is that she was 14 and found her brother hanging in the attic. She cut him down with a pair of shears. The story behind that was her brother had a crush on another student at school, who was another boy. When he told the boy of his affection, he was not met with kindness. The other boy told the other students and there was a terrible amount of bullying put his way. I think as a gay man this story is so important because of what's going on in our community today. With this administration trying to take away our rights, bullying has increased.

EDGE: William Mann, who wrote a biography of Hepburn in 2006, has written that he feels that she was very conflicted about homosexuals, even a bit homophobic. In your research did you find that Katharine Hepburn had conflicted attitudes towards homosexuality?

Matthew Lombardo: I don't think so, because George Cukor was gay, and a lot of people she surrounded herself with were gay. And there were rumors that she was bisexual and that Spencer Tracy was bisexual. There were versions of the play where I explored that, but I didn't have the factual evidence to back it up, so I couldn't put that in my play. But she was a best friend with George Cukor, so I don't think she had no issues with homosexuality. And also I think that because of what she admitted knowing about her brother, I think she was more sympathetic and compassionate about that her entire life.

EDGE: Are you surprised that younger audiences don't know who Katharine Hepburn is?

Matthew Lombardo: I am, but here is the interesting thing about this play — her story is an inspiration to women everywhere at any age. She had a dream when she was a little girl to become a great actress. In her own words, she wasn't conventionally pretty, she couldn't sing, act or dance. But through her hard work, she stumbled upon the American Dream because she had such drive and determination. I think that it's a shout-out to women that you can be anything you want to be if you believe in yourself. Katharine Hepburn was a role model for that.


EDGE: You are bringing another play to Broadway, which was not so welcoming when you brought "Looped" there. Does this bring on additional stress and anxiety?

Matthew Lombardo: You know, oh, God. I am so grateful to have the opportunity to come back and do work on this play, and working with Faye Dunaway, to continue my collaboration with John Tillinger — it is such a gift. I know the play is good and I know Faye Dunaway is fantastic, so I am not worried about the work. But there is always anxiety about the critics — there is always going to be that. But where I am living right now is such a place of gratitude that I get to revisit this play that was my first break, it is kind of like coming home in a way. We extended in Boston, we are doing really great with sales, so I think people particularly want to see this particular actress in this particular play.

EDGE: "Tea at Five," "Looped." "High." What attracts you to write plays that feature such strong women?

Matthew Lombardo: It's a good question. I grew up in a home with a very loving, demonstrative, caring, kind mother and three very strong-willed older sisters, so I learned to respect women at an early age. I remember when we would have holidays at my house. The men would go in the family room and watch TV, and the women would do the dishes in the kitchen. And I would hide under the kitchen table just to listen to their conversation because their conversations were so fascinating, and so much more important than what the men were speaking of. These were women who were talking about their feelings and being vulnerable with each other. I feel like I understand how to write for women, especially women of a certain age because they have all this life experience that bring a plethora of emotion to the characters.

EDGE: You have been very honest about your crystal meth issues in previous interviews. Are you doing well with that?

Matthew Lombardo: I am. I am in recovery still. I go to meetings every day. That's why I think I am in such a great place spiritually. I have to be grateful for everything I do every day. I start every day — I was just telling the other interviewer — with my cup of coffee from Starbucks, then go to a particular park bench and sit there and for an hour and just take in all that is coming around me without commenting on it in my mind. It is just taking it all in and being grateful for everything that is coming my way. Unfortunately, crystal meth is a plague in our community. It has taken so many of my friends' lives. The only way I can respect their existence or learn anything from this is just to stay sober every day.

EDGE: You have seen more than a half-dozen actresses and actors play Katharine Hepburn do you have a favorite so far?

Matthew Lombardo: You know there was Kate, there was Tovah Feldshuh, there was Stephanie Zimbalist, there is Faye. They all bring something different to it, but I think the only actress who can really understand the character is Faye Dunaway because she is a movie star. Katharine Hepburn was a movie star, and there was just that experience of being of that level of your career that the others don't know.

EDGE:How has the process been like with Ms. Dunaway?

Matthew Lombardo: Faye has been wonderful to collaborate with. She is so open to suggestions, she has a lot of great ideas. This has been a really wonderful collaboration between John Tillinger, myself and Faye. Months ago, even before formal rehearsals, we'd read through the script. Faye goes really, really deep with the character. It has just been a wonderful collaboration. She is extremely smart, highly intellectual; what she brings to this process is invaluable.

"Tea at Five" continues through July 14 at the Huntington Avenue Theatre, 264 Huntington Avenue, Boston, MA. For more information, follow this link.

Robert Nesti can be reached at [email protected].

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