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Gem from another era

Philly-set 1924 drawing room comedy ‘The Show Off’ gets delightful revival

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

‘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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Photos

PHOTOS: Black Pride Opening Reception

Billy Porter headlines program at start of weekend activities

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Billy Porter performs at the Opening Reception of DC Black Pride 2024. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

D.C. Black Pride 2024 began at The Westin Washington, DC Downtown with an Opening Reception on Friday, May 24. The “Rainbow Row” resource fair was held in conjunction with the reception and featured community organizations and other vendors’ booths.

The reception was hosted by Anthony Oakes. Earl Fowlkes, outgoing chief executive officer and president of the Center for Black Equity, was honored by a mayoral proclamation. Performers included Billy Porter, Paris Sashay, Keith Angelo, Bang Garcon, Black Assets, Marcy Smiles and Sherri Amoure.

(Washington Blade photos by Michael Key)

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Books

Architecture junkies will love new book on funeral homes

‘Preserved’ explores how death industry evolved after WWII

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(Book cover image courtesy of Johns Hopkins University Press)

‘Preserved: A Cultural History of the Funeral Home in America’
By Dean G. Lampros
c.2024, Johns Hopkins University Press 
$34.95/374 pages

Three bedrooms upstairs. That’s a minimum.

You need a big kitchen, a large back room would be a bonus, you want lots of bathrooms, and if you can get a corner lot, that’d be great. The thing you need most is a gigantic all-purpose room or maybe a ballroom because you’re planning on a lot of people. As you’ll see in the new book “Preserved” by Dean G. Lampros, not all living rooms are for the living.

Not too long ago, shortly after he took a class on historic preservation, Dean Lampros’ husband dragged him on a weekend away to explore a small town in Massachusetts. There, Lampros studied the town’s architecture and it “saddened” him to see Victorian mansions surrounded by commercial buildings. And then he had an epiphany: there was once a time when those old mansions housed funeral homes. Early twentieth-century owners of residential funeral homes were, in a way, he says, preservationists.

Prior to roughly World War II, most funerals were held at home or, if there was a need, at a funeral home, the majority of which were located in a downtown area. That changed in 1923 when a Massachusetts funeral home owner bought a large mansion in a residential area and made a “series of interior renovations” to the building. Within a few years, his idea of putting a funeral home inside a former home had spread across the country and thousands of “stately old mansions in aging residential neighborhoods” soon held death-industry businesses.

This, says, Lampros, often didn’t go over well with the neighbors, and that resulted in thousands of people upset and lawsuits filed. Some towns then passed ordinances to prohibit such a thing from happening to their citizens.

Still, funeral home owners persevered. Moving out of town helped “elevate” the trade, and it allowed Black funeral home operators to get a toehold in formerly white neighborhoods. And by having a nice – and nice-sized – facility, the operators were finally able to wrest the end-of-life process away from individuals and home-funerals.

Here’s a promise: “Preserved” is not gruesome or gore-for-the-sake-of-gore. It’s not going to keep you up all night or give you nightmares. Nope, while it might be a little stiff, it’s more of a look at architecture and history than anything else.

From California to New England, author Dean G. Lampros takes readers on a cruise through time and culture to show how “enterprising” business owners revolutionized a category and reached new customers for a once-in-a-deathtime event. Readers who’ve never considered this hidden-in-plain-sight, surprising subject – or, for that matter, the preservation or re-reclamation of those beautiful old homes – are in for a treat here. Despite that the book can lean toward the academic, a good explanatory timeline and information gleaned from historical archives and museums offer a liveliness that you’ll enjoy.

This book will delight fans of little-know history, and architecture junkies will drool over its many photographs. “Preserved” is the book you want because there are other ways to make a house a “home.”

The Blade may receive commissions from qualifying purchases made via this post.

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Theater

‘Evita’s Return’ offers different take on Argentinian icon

Posthumous look at mummified first lady’s travels is not fiction

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Fran Tapia (front) Back L-R Facundo Agustin, Luis Obed Velazquez, Tsaitami Duchicela (back) Oscar A.Rodriguez, Rodolfo Santamarina, and Sofia Grosso. ( Photo by Stan Weinstein)

“Momea en el Clóset (Mummy in the Closet): Evita’s Return”
Through June 9
GALA Hispanic Theatre
3333 14th St., N.W.
$50
Galatheatre.org

Whether alive or dead, Eva Perón wielded her own brand of political power. After her death in 1952, Eva’s cult of mostly poor and working-class followers remained devoted to their Santa Evita. Her husband, Argentina’s president Juan Perón, fostered adulation by having her wasted body painstakingly embalmed, and displaying the waxen corpse like the incorruptible bodies of sainted Roman Catholic luminaries. But when the anti-Peronistas took power, they had other ideas; storing her away far from sight seemed a better idea.

Typically works about Argentina’s first lady focus on her unbridled ambition and ascent from anonymity to fame, but the strikingly original “Momea en el Clóset (Mummy in the Closet): Evita’s Return” — now at GALA Hispanic Theatre — is different. The collaboration of GALA’s producing artistic director Gustavo Ott (book and lyrics) and Mariano Vales (music and lyrics) spotlights the events following Eva’s death from cervical cancer at just 33.  

At the center of this entertaining madness is winning out actor Fran Tapia as Eva, a corpse sporting a ball gown and the trademark platinum blonde chignon, standing stiffly in a closet, more a mobile cabinet actually. In death, she realizes a silent dignity with flashes of an unyielding passion for social justice. 

The Chilean award-winning Tapia possesses a stunningly emotive voice, quickly evidenced in the show’s first number “Evita, Evita,” when near death Eva bravely addresses the needy crowd whom she endearingly calls her descamisados (the very poor). Simultaneously, the smug anti-Peronists — bourgeoisie and military types — sing “cancer is homeland,” “cancer is love.” They relish the idea of her dying and are counting the minutes to her imminent demise. 

So, the scene is set. Eva’s shabby posthumous story unfolds – performed in Spanish with eloquent English surtitles. Sprinkled with humor and poignant bits, it’s a dramedy, reflective of then and today. 

Unlike Eva’s “Rainbow Tour” of 1947 when Argentina’s newly minted first lady was introduced to Europe with mixed results, her death journey is an obscure low-rent, outing. She finds herself in a Milanese cemetery with some particularly pesky souls, each who apparently strode the earth in different centuries (all cleverly costumed by Becca Janney). 

For a time, she lands with an increasingly cynical Perón (stentorian-voiced Martín Ruiz) in Spanish exile. With him are new wife Isabel (Camila Taleisnik), portrayed as a reluctant and inept replacement for Evita, and scheming political cum spiritual adviser López (Diego Mariani).

As crazy as it sounds, GALA’s current offering isn’t a work of fiction. At the top of the show, it’s made perfectly clear that any resemblance to the truth is factual. Director Mariano Caligaris’ inventive, fearless staging along with Valeria Cossnu’s exhilarating choreography, make for exciting storytelling. 

Music inspired by Latin rhythms of samba, reggae, bachata, tango, tarantella, and waltz (by way of Bavaria) is directed by Walter “Bobby” McCoy and performed live by a fabulous unseen seven-person orchestra. 

Grisele Gonzalez’s serviceable, multi-tiered set design affords the various prerequisite balconies and perches. An upstage scrim is perfect for the projections (Hailey Laroe) of grimy actual footage from Eva’s funeral and subsequent violent skirmishes involving fascists against the people. 

The cast is uniformly terrific. They sing, dance, and act with equal skill, and whether playing protesters, clerical staff, or handsome Argentinian soldiers, they look the part. Most are required to interact with the cadaver in differing ways from timidly to less than respectfully. 

Making his GALA debut, wonderfully able Rodrigo Pedreira shows off his versatility as Dr. Ara, the man tasked with making the dead woman presentable for public consumption, as well as a general whose butch exterior is belied by the occasional mincing walk and longing looks directed at his cute aide-de-camp (Luis Obed Velázquez).

As she travels, mummified Eva says “And once again the moving begins. They move me through offices, basements, garages. They cover me, package me, label me, and off I go traveling again! We come from fascism and toward fascism we go.”

Alive or dead, Eva was never able to successfully crack Buenos Aires’ famously tough high society, but she found fans elsewhere. 

Over about 14 years as a displaced dead body and beyond, Tapia’s Eva embodies the spirit of Argentina’s millions, the common people. They return the dedication: Candles are lit. Prayers are offered. Intercession is sought. Life goes on, but Eva isn’t easily forgotten.

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