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‘Tea’ is a sociable trio of waning reign confessions
BY SCOTT STIFFLER | Three gold frames, containing neither pictures nor portraits, hang on the back wall of a tastefully appointed room in the White House. It’s where we’re about to meet a trio of first ladies in the waning hours of their reign — and as the tight, 80-minute “TEA FOR THREE” plays out, the conspicuously empty space inside those gilded adornments will speak volumes about how we project our own values, opinions and desires onto the blank canvas of people we think we know (even if we’ve never actually met them).
Credit director Byam Stevens for that telling visual metaphor. The writing, by Eric H. Weinberger and Elaine Bromka, has its own effective dramatic hook: Each presidential wife (Lady Bird Johnson, Pat Nixon and Betty Ford) is reflecting on life in the White House, just prior to giving the new first lady her grand tour. Soon to be stripped of their duties (or freed from them as the case may be), this unique place in time affords them the rare chance to offer unusually candid opinions. Depending upon their disposition and the reason hubby is leaving office, the tea room becomes a confessional, a wartime bunker or a speakeasy during last call. It’s a great premise to throw at Bromka — a finely calibrated theater vet whose interpretation of each woman’s voice, posture and temperament is as far from mimicry as one could possibly hope to expect. She’s especially good when the unspooling of an anecdote requires her to shift from self-aware humor to empathy-inducing melancholy.
Played as a fun-loving gal who just wants the party to go on, her Betty Ford is the show’s most complex, compelling watch — a survivor of breast cancer who has yet to be stopped in her tracks by the highball glass that’s molded to her hand like a vital appendage. Seeing the future founder of the Betty Ford Center at a point where she still downs booze and prescription pills with casual aplomb is especially poignant if you know what’s coming down the road. Those coming to the show without an intimate knowledge of the eras in which Ford and her two sequential predecessors occupied the White House will still be drawn in by three very different women’s riffs on power, politics and the way we grasp for wisdom at the dawn of hindsight.