WESTPORT — Playwright George Kelly came from a notable Philadelphia family whose ranks included a champion Olympic oarsman and a movie star who married a prince (you probably know who…), but his own star led him to the stage, first as a vaudevillian performer and then as a playwright. He was very successful in the 1920s, winning the Pulitzer Prize for his drama Craig’s Wife, and achieving great popular success with his comedy, The Show-Off.
He drifted to Hollywood in the thirties, but found little satisfaction there. By today, most people have never heard of him.
Now Westport Country Playhouse is hoping to gain him recognition again, with its revival of The Show-Off, touting it as an example of American comedy. Performances continue on the historic theater’s stage until June 29.
Certainly this school of playwriting is distinctly different from French farce or British drawing room comedy, because it is mixed with a streak of melodramatic realism that you would not find in European theater, where serious emotion and funny do not generally mix.
The play revolves around the character conflict between Mrs Fisher — the stolid, tough-minded matriarch of a middle class Philadelphia family —and her daughter’s suitor, Aubrey Piper — an irrepressible blowhard with insufferable affectations and pretensions to wealth, wisdom and class — none of which have any connection to the reality of his situation (he is a penniless clerk with little learning and less skill).
While the older Fisher daughter, Clara Hyland, has married well, and dresses in furs and fashionable outfits, and the son, Joe, is a hard-working, self-taught engineer who dreams of making it big with a new scientific invention, younger daughter Amy is being courted by Aubrey Piper, and is so smitten with him that the outcome will be inevitable: by the end of Act One they are engaged. When Act Two opens they have been married for six months.
I must admit that like Mrs Fisher, I find it hard to stay in the same room with Aubrey. To be even more truthful, on past occasions when I was seeing the show on my own dime, I left early.
Reviewers cannot do that, of course, and fortunately I stayed to see the whole thing. Westport’s production has an excellent cast, featuring Jayne Houdyshell as Mrs Fisher, and Will Rogers as Aubrey, and it makes a difference.
While Amy, convincingly played by Clea Alsip, is in love with a self-aggrandizing fool and will never admit to his limitations, her sister recognizes the depth of Aubrey and Amy’s commitment to each other, even as she realizes the shallowness of her own wealthy husband’s feelings. Aubrey is a fool who cannot be trusted with money or another person’s automobile, but he is genuine in his love for his wife, and that, as Clara tells her mother, is worth something.
Beautifully played by Mia Barron, Clara is the moral heart of the play, the person who sees things as they are and grows into something close to wisdom.
The realism of Alexander Dodge’s set, which captures in loving detail the dark interior of a Philadelphia row house, mirrors the realism of the play with all its nuances of social class, self righteous ethnic prejudices, and family dynamics. Gabriel Berry’s costume design captures the eye and becomes part of the entertainment.
(For tickets and performance information, call the box office at 203-227-4177 or 888-927-7529, or visit www.westportplayhouse.org.)