Westport Playhouse Revives “Show-Off”

by Tom Holehan

It’s tough to make a colossal bore like Aubrey Piper, the title character of George Kelly’s 1920s comedy, “The Show-Off”, sympathetic and pity the poor actor that tries! A revival of this faded chestnut -- in three acts with two intermissions -- is currently underway at the Westport Country Playhouse. They don’t make ‘em like this anymore. Maybe there’s a good reason.

Set in a handsome wood and brick Colonial home in North Philadelphia, “The Show-Off” is anchored by veteran character actress Jayne Houdyshell playing the family matriarch where she resides with her hard-working husband, daughter and son. Single daughter Amy has taken up with the aforementioned Aubrey much to her family’s consternation. Aubrey is one of those colorful characters who’s a legend before he even steps on stage. We hear everything bad there could be about the fellow and he pretty much lives up (down) to expectations when he finally makes an appearance. In the difficult title role, Will Rogers has to be a tedious blowhard but also has to give us reason to believe that Amy would be drawn to him. He also has to justify Kelly’s quick character-change moment by the final curtain. No easy task.

Sadly, Rogers doesn't pull it off. It’s not for lack of trying -- in fact, he’s probably trying too hard to make his character lovable. I don’t know if this is possible but, apparently, it did work when originally produced. Perhaps, however, our sensibilities and tolerance for such buffoons has lessened over the years. Certainly the casual racism in the play hasn’t aged well nor the repetitive nature of scenes that hammer home points already made in a previous act. The play is to be admired for its careful construction, but there are at least two characters that prove negligible and a major event in the first act makes quick work of another actor’s thankless role.

Still, Director Nicolas Martin, fresh from his chores on the Tony Award winning play, “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike,” has delivered a polished production with Ms. Houdyshell in rare form, glowering and ranting to beat the band. Clea Alsip’s Amy never quite makes sensible her attraction to the insufferable Aubrey, but she shoulders on admirably as does Mia Barron, playing her savvy sister, Clara, whose own presumably happy marriage is called into question. Karl Baker Olson is personable as their younger brother and Robert Eli adds some mystery to his brief role as Clara’s husband.

Ubiquitous scenic designer Alexander Dodge performs his customary magic to the family home providing a comfy environ that easily entices Aubrey to claim it as his own. The period costumes by Gabriel Berry are also very well appointed. Despite best intentions in a production where most of the talent is unmistakable, “The Show-Off” still manages to show its seams.

“The Show-Off” continues at the Westport Country Playhouse through June 29th. For further information or ticket reservations, call the theatre box office at 203.227.4177 or visit: www.westportplayhouse.org.

Tom Holehan is one of the founders of the Connecticut Critics Circle, a frequent contributor to WPKN Radio’s “State of the Arts” program and Artistic Director of Stratford’s Square One Theatre Company. He welcomes comments at: tholehan@yahoo.com. His reviews and other theatre information can be found on the Connecticut Critics Circle website: www.ctcritics.org.

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