Because it predates the Age of Plastic, George Kelly's 1922 "The Show-Off" seems as ancient as "Antigone." It describes a vanished world, one where people tried to live within their incomes.
This will doubtless be difficult for young theatergoers to comprehend. But what will make this revival enjoyable is a triumphant performance by Pat Carroll as a grouchy old Irishwoman, one of the pivots of Kelly's odd but sturdy play.
A woman full of working-class fears and prejudices ("I'm not going to go up there lookin' like a dago woman," she says at one point), Mrs. Fisher is the mother of two socially aspiring daughters. One has married an extremely wealthy, emotionally chilly man. The other is in love with the title character, the grandiosely named Aubrey Piper - a blowhard who dresses like a dandy and pretends to be wealthier than he is.
All the other characters disdain him, but at the end of the play he comes to the family's rescue and we see that he's just a Jazz Age version of that venerable American figure, the super salesman.
By then, even his staunchest adversary, Mrs. Fisher, acknowledges his gifts. "There's no use being sensible anymore," she laments. This is the dawning of the Age of Plastic.
If the revival has a weakness, it is in the way Brian Murray has directed Boyd Gaines, who plays Aubrey. Gaines, a pliable and gifted actor, makes Aubrey a pure stage creature, more believable as a song-and-dance man than as a man with a knack for selling sizzle.
Part of the problem is that actors today disdain salesmen. In 1922, they were still considered heroic figures. Not all Americans laughed at Babbitt; a man like Willy Loman would have been inconceivable. This cultural gap has to be bridged to make Aubrey believable.
In every other respect the production has been splendidly cast and performed, particularly Laura Esterman and Sophie Hayden as the sisters, Tim DeKay as a young inventor and J.R. Horne as an insurance man.
But the evening really belongs to Carroll, who makes Mrs. Fisher a great comic character. She is a consummate physical comedienne, able to make her jowls flap as she snores, able to invest a scowl with almost supernatural ferocity. But her greatness as an actress is to make us aware of Mrs. Fisher's humanity, even when she's being prejudiced or outrageous.
He has a bray of a laugh that would set a hyena's teeth on edge. Lying is first nature to him, and he is as conceited as a vain peacock in a beauty contest. Worthless - yet not altogether unlikable - he is the unlikely hero of George Kelly's "The Show-Off." The name is Aubrey Piper.
There are not too many bona fide American classics, or classic heroes, in our dramatic literature, and the Roundabout Theater, one of our few companies dedicated in part to their preservation, has a clear duty toward them. But duty must have been combined with a healthy dollop of pleasure when the company decided to dust off Kelly's 1924 hit for another decade and another audience.
Not seen hereabouts since 1978, when the Roundabout itself performed the play with Polly Rowles and Paul Rudd, and not seen on Broadway since 1967 with Helen Hayes and Clayton Corzatte, "The Show-Off" was good and ready for another day in the sun. It is a period piece of timeless charm. Indeed a classic.
For a classic it will doubtless seem oddly modern, simply because Kelly's dramatic method, bastardized, cheapened and (if there be such a word) cornified, was one of the sources for Hollywood domestic dialogue, which later (even more cornified) became the basis for early TV sitcom.
It is a mixture in which speech, character and incident take the place of plot. Things happen in "The Show-Off," but what is important is the interplay between the stubborn matriarch Mrs. Fisher and her braying, braggart son-in-law, Aubrey Piper.
The egregious Piper boasts that he is charge of an office in which he is really a $32-a-week clerk, crashes a friend's car and crushes a traffic cop, and calmly permits his brother-in-law to foot a $1,000 fine. He even claims to own Mrs. Fisher's house.
Yet there may be more to odious Aubrey than meets the nose...his young wife Amy adores him beyond the point of silliness, and perhaps his blowhard tactics have a certain...nah, that's impossible.
Still, as the critic Stark Young observed in the '20s, "Aubrey has wild wings and a thick skin. He is always second-rate, contemporary and soaring. He is a liar with an overwhelming truth of his own, a parrot among hens."
Brian Murray's meticulous staging, helped by the stylish period designs of Ben Edwards for sets and David Charles for costumes, concentrates, at its risk, less on Aubrey than on the wonderfully naturalistic comedy. This was one of the first working-class plays in the English language, and Murray and his cast catch this marvelously evoked domesticity with idiomatic verve.
Pat Carroll's monumental matriarch, while lacking the wicked acidity of Miss Hayes, billows through the play with stately anguish. And as her two daughters, Laura Esterman as the terminally disillusioned Clara and Sophie Hayden as the eternally hopeful Amy (Amy Fisher; now there's a name that rings some sort of bell!) are both quite wonderful.
But unhappily the evening's flaw is the eponymous hero, Boyd Gaines as the awful but resilient Aubrey. He misses Stark Young's "wild wings" and his performance, unlike Paul Rudd's last time around, stubbornly never soars. Indeed, despite its solid competence, it hardly gets off the ground.
All the same, the play remains an unpretentious joy - an old-fashioned well-made play that well justifies the making.
Aubrey Piper, the title character in "The Show-Off," is a braggart buoyed by misplaced self-confidence. But with his blissful unwillingness to accept discouragement, he also has an engaging side. The full dimension of this eternal optimist is captured by Boyd Gaines in the revival of the George Kelly comedy at the Roundabout Theater Company.
The danger in playing the character is to make fun of him instead of simply allowing him to mock himself. Mr. Gaines avoids that possibility as he joins with Pat Carroll to offer a mirthful duel of opposites. Ms. Carroll plays the honest, confrontational Mrs. Fisher, who becomes Aubrey's mother-in-law and chief critic.
Over the years, this 1924 play has come to be regarded as a classic of its genre. Actually, it is less a classic than a popular comedy that is close to foolproof as long as actors do not play the characters as fools. The contrivances in the plot and the lengthy exposition are counterbalanced by the clarity of the motivations. Once the personalities of Aubrey and the mother have been established, theatergoers can sit back and enjoy their never-ending family argument.
"The Show-Off" was very much of its period, a time of expanding economic opportunity with ample room for go-getters to get ahead. In telling the story of the brash Aubrey, Kelly also struck a universal theme: the obstreperous outsider breaking into a closed society, in this case a respectable Philadelphia family. Although the author won the Pulitzer Prize the next year for "Craig's Wife," "The Show-Off" became his most produced play.
Brian Murray's direction occasionally pushes the comedy into caricature, as in the portrait of an absent-minded inventor. But the revival catches the eccentric rhythm of the comedy without obscuring the latent abrasiveness. When Mr. Gaines and Ms. Carroll are going at each other, the amusement accelerates as she withstands all the young man's egocentricities and platitudes. Aubrey maintains his equanimity even when he causes an automobile accident that sends a traffic policeman to the hospital with a broken arm. From his perspective, it was the policeman who ran into the car.
Naturally, one's sympathies are drawn to the mother. Nothing she has done deserves an Aubrey in her life. He demolishes her tranquillity with his back-slapping garrulousness, and his gullible bride remains oblivious to his lies. But underscoring the character's brusqueness, Ms. Carroll keeps her from seeming sweet or lovable. She is, in her own way, as pushy as her son-in-law. Like an Archie Bunker of the 1920's, she peppers her conversation with casual ethnic prejudices.
In contrast, Mr. Gaines has a certain dash in his manner and appearance, with his carnation in his buttonhole (although he is a $32-a-week clerk) and a perpetual smile on his face. Even if he tried, he could not frown; he even has something positive to say about death. Through his forthright performance, Mr. Gaines makes it clear that the man means well. For all of his conceit, he truly loves his wife, almost as much as he loves himself.
The others in the cast are catalysts and observers, assorted characters from family comedies of the period. They are all satellites in the orbit of the showoff and the woman who is trying to show him up for the liar that he is. Sophie Hayden and Laura Esterman, neatly contrasted as sisters, stay in the background.
The production fits snugly on the Roundabout stage. The set by Ben Edwards, filled with period furniture, is especially helpful in preserving authenticity. Watching the play, theatergoers can feel projected back to an earlier, more hopeful time in the theater and in America itself.
The key to the play's revivability can be found in Aubrey. Energized by his ego, he has an Horatio Alger view of success. His favorite slogan is, "Sign on the dotted line." With pluck, luck and a signature on a contract, anyone can get ahead, which is true of salesmen from Willy Loman through the ambitious real estate brokers in David Mamet's "Glengarry Glen Ross."
While offering cautionary advice on self-promotion, Kelly concentrated on writing a comedy of character with two zestful roles for actors. When Mrs. Fisher falls asleep in her rocking chair, it is for her a rare moment of inaction. But then Ms. Carroll's cheeks begin to flutter like a flag blowing in the breeze. Every ripple is a laugh. In the best sense, the actress commands the stage and makes her presence felt even when she is just offstage shouting at her dog to behave itself.
Mr. Gaines is easily her equal. Watch him take an apple from a bowl, bite into it and, with a slow double take, realize that it is a piece of waxed fruit. The look on his face is one of incredulity, but not embarrassment. With calm bordering on panache, he carefully puts the apple back in the bowl and pretends the mistake never happened. He and Ms. Carroll are felicitous in their acting and reacting in this remarkably durable comedy.
If there is any reason at all to revive George Kelly's 1924 snoozer "The Show-Off" in 1992, it is nowhere in evidence in the enervating revival that kicks off the Roundabout Theater's 27th season. A fine comedy director cannot mask its emptiness, and a veteran quartet, half of which is miscast, cannot breathe any life into it.
A Philadelphia story absent Philip Barry, "The Show-Off" was a monster hit in its time, running nearly 600 performances. It's about a middle-class Irish family whose younger daughter Amy (Sophie Hayden, casting error No. 1) falls for and finally marries the aptly named Aubrey Piper (Boyd Gaines, casting error No. 2), a nattering nabob of optimism.
Aubrey is an irritant to the rest of the family, especially the matriarch (Pat Carroll), a plain-spoken woman who cannot resist a fight with Aubrey even as her own husband (Richard Woods) lays dying in a hospital following a stroke.
Hayden was too old for Rosabella in last season's "The Most Happy Fella" revival, yet she triumphed by virtue of a wonderful voice that projected openness, warmth and trust as her acting revealed a woman who'd lived some. Here , however, she hardly seems younger than Laura Esterman's older sister Clara, and her emotional palette seems limited to wide-eyed girlishness and brow-furrowing consternation.
Aubrey is a character who doesn't really exist in nature; he's a comic event. Gaines has his false extravagance down, but the character needs more than that--a glimpse into the heart of a man so uncomfortable in his own skin that he seems constantly on the verge of leaping out of it. That, too, won't be found here.
Esterman also is problematic as the sister who married into money and envies Amy even as Aubrey exasperates her; Esterman, all limbs and sinew, is a little too high-strung for this crowd. And yet there are several moments when she strikes a pose of such delicate grace that one realizes one has been staring at her while the play has moved elsewhere.
Perhaps Carroll wanted to do something conventional after playing a series of colorful roles -- notably Falstaff and the voice of Ursula, the fleshy, tentacular sea witch in "The Little Mermaid." But conventional is all she is here. Even when sparring with Gaines, there's no fire in the performance.
Director Brian Murray's comedic gift fails him; the production lacks urgency as well as wit, though there are nice contributions from Tim DeKay and Kevin McClarnon.
Ben Edward's serviceable livingroom set is considerably below his usual standard. Most of David Charles' costumes are unflattering at best and ugly at worst.
If someone can figure out what the point of all this was, we'd love to know.