There has been a renewed interested in the plays of Pulitzer Prize winner George Kelly, best know these days as the uncle of Grace Kelly, Princess of Monaco. The Pearl Theatre and the Mint Theater Companies have had recent successes with his minor but accomplished character studies, Daisy Mayme (2003), Philip Goes Forth (2013) and The Fatal Weakness (2014). Now the Peccadillo Theater Company has tackled his most successful play, the 1924 comedy The Show-Off which has had a record seven Broadway productions. Unfortunately, directed by Dan Wackerman as a drama, it turns out to be neither funny nor meaningful but ponderously weighty without any comic relief.
With such stars as Spencer Tracy, Lee Tracy, Red Skelton, Jackie Gleason, Paul Rudd and Boyd Gaines playing the title role on stage and screen, and ladies like Marjorie Main, Helen Hayes and Pat Carroll as his nemesis in his mother-in-law this has in the past been a sure-fire winner. The North Philadelphia Irish-American Fishers (like the author’s parents) are a hard-working family who are getting along just fine until middle child Amy brings home Audrey Piper with whom she has fallen head over heels in love. To the disgust of the family, particularly matriarch Mrs. Fisher, Aubrey is a bigger than life character who is an inveterate liar and given to delusions of grandeur.
Sporting an obvious toupee, and given to wearing carnations in his button hole, he is obnoxious, arrogant and obstreperous. Though he is a $32-a-week clerk, he claims to be a department head with 200 people reporting to him and throws the little money he has around like a millionaire. Is this his way of making life interesting or does he believe that if he says things often enough they will come true? He has Amy completely taken in although both her parents see through him. So too does her older sister Clara whose businessman husband Frank has his ear to the grapevine and knows the truth about Aubrey’s exaggerations. Younger brother Joe, a budding engineering genius, has no time for him. Aubrey is a type that was probably much funnier in 1924. Today we have a good deal of evidence as to how dangerous such people are.
When Amy marries Audrey, his problems keep costing the family money. His biggest nemesis is his mother-in-law who has no respect for a man who can’t support his wife but considers buying a new car on credit. When Aubrey’s antics get him arrested, she – and we – hope for his comeuppance. However, a deus ex machina ending leaves us with an unexpected happy ending.
The central character is actually Mrs. Fisher who worries about her children and plots to open Amy’s eyes to her husband’s faults. Unfortunately, Annette O’Toole has been directed to play her as shrill, strident and hysterical, rather than as a wise middle-aged lady who has no illusions about life. Given a great many ethnic prejudices in her dialogue which in 1924 defined her as a suburban provincial, played this way she simply comes across as a bigot. We ought to be rooting for her against the barbarian invasion but O’Toole makes her almost as bad as Aubrey.
Rather than being a Moliere-esque comic character who has no idea how preposterous he is, Ian Gould makes Aubrey as unpleasant as possible. Never are we hoping he will turn out to be right. Where his exaggerated bragging ought to be hilarious funny to everyone else, he just seems to be a liar not worthy of our time. The pitched battle between him and Mrs. Fisher is one that we just wish would go away rather than that one of them should win. While most of the gags are foreshadowed long before they occur in the script, here it only telegraphs plot points that should come with a shock of recognition. How has Audrey gotten away with his lies so long? Has everyone in Philadelphia fallen for his stories?
As his fiancée and later his wife, Emma Orelove is not smitten enough to explain her being hoodwinked by him nor is she downtrodden enough when his salary fails to cover their expenses. Elise Hudson as sister Clara stuck in an unhappy marriage is rather one-note which does not help matters. As her indifferent husband, Aaron Gaines is too bland to explain their distance. Tirosh Schneider as the younger brother Joe gives the most realistic performance but he is off stage much of the time. In smaller roles, Douglas Rees as Mr. Fisher, Marvin Bell as one of his working colleagues, and Buzz Roddy as Mrs. Fisher’s lawyer give able support in walk-on roles.
The most successful element is the realistically shabby genteel living room/dining room/parlor setting for this 1924 middle-class suburban home by Harry Feiner. His lighting design with its many lamps adds to the set’s realism. Ironically, Barbara A. Bell’s costumes make the women look dowdy even if they are period correct. Nor do Paul Huntley’s wigs flatter the actresses one bit.
An American classic of long standing, George Kelly’s The Show-Off may have dated. However, as has often been seen with legendary Moliere comedies, the right style will make all the difference. Dan Wackerman’s handling of The Show-Off has deflated the high-jinks and satire that is very much in evidence in this long admired character study of a typically American type. It is left to the right director to bring out the brilliance in this 1920’s comedy in some future revival.
The Show-Off (through October 21, 2017)
The Peccadillo Theater Company
Theatre at St. Clement’s, 423 W. 46th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 866-811-4111 or visit http://www.thepeccadillo.com
Running time: two hours and 15 minutes with one intermission