January 17, 2013 | by Patrick Folliard
Gem from another era

‘The Show-Off’
Through Feb. 2
American Century Theater
Gunston Performing Arts Center, Theatre II
2700 South Lang Street, Arlington
$35-$40
703-998-4555
americancenturytheatre.org

theater, The Show-Off, Joe Cronin, Jenna Berk, Lee Mikeska Gardner, American Century Theater, gay news, Washington Blade

From left, Joe Cronin, Jenna Berk and Lee Mikeska Gardner in ‘The Show-Off.’ (Photo by Johannes Markus; courtesy of the American Century Theater)

Everyone’s met an Aubrey Piper, the obnoxious title character in George Kelly’s 1924 comedy “The Show-Off.” Loud, boastful, desperate for attention, Aubrey is a nightmare in an obvious toupee and a liar to boot. But lucky for most of us, unlike the Fishers, the good folks featured in Kelly’s play, we don’t have an Aubrey marrying into the family.

At 90, Kelly’s play is windy but fundamentally funny precisely because it deals in familiar, time-resistant types. “The Show-off” got its start as a big Broadway hit and subsequently enjoyed revivals and was adapted to the screen more than once. Currently, it’s in production at Arlington’s American Century Theater, a company committed to promoting 20th century plays as a vital part of today’s cultural dialogue.

The show opens with Mrs. Fisher (Lee Mikeska Gardner) dishing the dirt with her sensible, well-married daughter Clara (Jenna Berk). It seems Aubrey (David Gram) has been coming to call on the Fishers’ younger daughter Amy (Erin E. McGuff) every Wednesday and Sunday evening without fail. Not content to woo his giggly girlfriend privately in the offstage parlor, Aubrey brings his corny jokes, tall tales and off key singing center stage to the living room where Amy’s parents and her inventor brother Joe (Evan Crump) are trying to pass a quiet evening at home. A solid working class family with a comfortable house in northern Philadelphia, the Fishers can’t understand what their daughter sees in the phony low paid freight clerk posing as a Pennsylvania Railroad big shot.

By act two the Fishers’ worst fears are realized: Aubrey and Amy are married. By act three, it gets even worse, and finally a little better. At the end, Clara begins to soften. Locked in a lonely marriage, she is charmed by Aubrey’s sincere love for her sister. And though he doesn’t pull a big salary, Aubrey does go to work every day. In the end, despite — or more likely because of — his borderline con artist ways, Aubrey brings a boon to the family. Will he again in the future? That’s unclear.

Set in the playwright George Kelly’s native Philadelphia, the comedy is filled with references to streets and neighborhoods including the downtown area where Clara’s detached husband Frank (Nello DeBlasio) first spotted Aubrey (he’s hard to miss with jaunty fedora, walking stick and red carnation), and the busy intersection where Aubrey runs down a cop.

George Kelly was enormously popular in the ‘20s and early ‘30s. Today, aside from being movie star Grace Kelly’s uncle, he is best known for “The Show-Off” and his Pulitzer Prize-winning drama “Craig’s Wife,” a morality tale about a controlling woman who values a pristine home above family and friendship. (The latter was adapted for the screen in ‘50s as “Harriett Craig,” a juicy mid-career vehicle for none other than real life clean freak Joan Crawford). Kelly was also gay, and not surprising for the time, carefully closeted. He maintained a 55-year relationship with partner William Weagley.

Uniformed in her apron and rolled down hose, Mikeska Gardner’s Mrs. Fisher is a feisty but warmhearted and uncomplicated homemaker. Sometimes she plays her a bit simple but never a fool. Similarly, Gram’s Aubrey even at his most over-the-top, third rate vaudevillian weirdness, is no fool either. It’s a good thing too. The play wouldn’t work otherwise.

Ably directed by Stephen Jarrett, the talented nine-person cast is especially cohesive. Set designer Leigh-Ann Friedel’s living room is handsome and realistic, well suited to Kelly’s durable play. (Kelly had no time for the modernism and more experimental theater forms en vogue in his heyday). Showing great attention to detail, Erin Nugent successfully clothes the cast through numerous costume changes on a presumably not huge budget.

Once again, The American Century Theater has fulfilled its mission by plucking and mounting a charming seldom-produced show from the American repertoire. See it while you can.

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