The Donut and the Hole
by David A. Rosenberg
It’s the doughnut, not the hole. So it is with the revival of “The Show-Off” at the Westport Country Playhouse, where everything is tasty, except for a great big gap in the middle.
As the title character, Aubrey Piper, Will Rogers is inconsistent and mis-cast, almost torpedoing George Kelly’s still-timely, still-ingratiating comedy-drama.
A work of many facets, “The Show-Off,” which Kelly expanded from a vaudeville sketch, was a Broadway hit in 1924, up for a Pulitzer Prize. It was filmed three times, the last two starring, respectively, the very different talents of Spencer Tracy and Red Skelton, and had a smash 1967 revival with Helen Hayes and Clayton Corzatte.
The Westport revival is directed with his customary skill by Nicholas Martin, who emphasizes the humanity beneath the comic facades and working-class concerns of the Fisher family in North Philadelphia. Despite its age and format (it’s in three acts and lasts two-and-a-half hours), it’s a play to treasure.
Show-off Aubrey is a braggart and a liar, hardly the kind of sympathetic hero for whom audiences can root. He represents the boastful, yet oddly appealing American businessman with his foot on the bottom rung of the success ladder. Like Willy Loman in “Death of a Salesman,” he’s sailing through life on “a smile and a shoeshine.”
Mrs. Fisher sees right through the annoying Aubrey, he with the braying laugh, the ready banter, the slaps on the back. But what can she do when her daughter, Amy, is so smitten? Her other daughter, the clear-eyed Clara, knows better. Aubrey, she informs all, is not a department head at the Pennsylvania Railroad, as he claims, but a clerk who earns $32.50 a week.
Further, he borrows money from Clara’s husband, the successful Frank Hyland, a man dreaming of the marriage and wife he had really wanted. Frank’s story, though undeveloped, is a mirror to Amy and Aubrey’s mindless but loving relationship.
Aubrey makes up for any shortcomings by wearing a carnation in his buttonhole, dandified outfits and a toupee. Cheerfully disregarding laws, eventually he comes through for the family out of the same impulse toward bluffing that made him so irritating. He hasn’t changed; he’s merely shown how deals are made.
As Mrs. Fisher, Jayne Houdyshell is commanding, her impeccable timing letting other characters swirl around her like unmoored chess pieces. Doubtful to the point of cynicism, she makes Mrs. Fisher a flavorsome but sour lemon, prejudiced, small-minded, acerbic, suspicious and caring, her every glance a tale to tell.
The uniformly excellent cast adds layers to Kelly’s characters, with Mia Barron and Clea Alsip particularly fine as Clara and Amy. But Rogers’ Aubrey is too young and too unimposing, swinging wildly between conscious pride and unconscious goofiness. Rogers portrays Aubrey not as a boorish rube we should ultimately like but a self-aware, sly, conniving blowhard. He seems unsure where to land.
Philip Rosenberg’s autumnal lighting and Gabriel Berry’s chic period costumes look fine on Alexander Dodge’s ornamental set. “The Show-Off” is a classic American work, one whose characters and themes thread through this country’s very being. “Isn’t he wonderful, Mom?” a clueless Amy asks, to which Mrs. Fisher sighs and says, “God help me, from now on.”
“The Show-Off” is at the Westport Country Playhouse, 25 Powers Court, Westport, through June 29. Call (203) 227-4177 or visit westportplayhouse.org