The Show-Off By George Kelly Directed by Stephen Jarrett; American Century Theater at Gunston Arts Center to Feb. 2 A tale about putting on airs gets a deflated treatment

Act of Fraud: A self-aggrandizing braggart vies for a family’s good graces.

There’s a not-too-gentle truth about two competing strains of American character running through George Kelly’s 1924 comedy The Show-Off, though you’ll be hard-pressed to tease it out of Stephen Jarrett’s tone-deaf mounting for American Century Theater.

Kelly just missed landing a Pulitzer for this tale of a blowhard railway clerk and the simpleton he bamboozles into marriage despite her family’s—really, her mother’s—objections. An incident-crammed tale of the young and poor (the play’s subtitle is “A Transcript of Life in Three Acts”), The Show-Off taps into social currents that have resonated strongly enough through the years to inspire five Broadway revivals and three films. Alas, no play is so solid it can’t be undone by a sufficiently misguided production.

Start with the title character: Aubrey Piper (David Gram) is the all-American success story writ premature—he’s convinced he’ll get ahead if he can just persuade everyone he’s already leading the pack, so he pops a carnation in his lapel, a toupée atop his bald spot, and a self-aggrandizing lie into every conversation. To hear him tell it, he’s the head of the railway department in which he’s clerking for $32.50 a week, and when he crashes a friend’s car, his chief concern is that the local newspapers get his name right. For the part to work, the character must be at least somewhat appealing—you have to believe his sweetheart (a properly lovestruck Erin E. McGuff) would find him charming, and that someone would loan him a car—but Gram makes Piper little more than an abrasive annoyance, bursting through doorways and braying as if he’s just downed a case of Red Bull.

Resisting him is all-American traditionalism writ small-minded, in the person of his incipient mother-in-law (Lee Mikeska Gardner). This nosy chatterbox couples vinegary aphorisms (“everybody will have trouble if they live long enough”) with casual snark about dagos, Jews, and hunkies, and is as blind to her own failings as she is finely attuned to everyone else’s—a potential goldmine of clueless comedy were she not being played almost entirely for empathy.

Secondary players range from adequate (Jenna Berk as an unhappily married relation) to considerably less than that in a production that’s as unable to wrest pathos from a major character’s death as it is to coax even a titter from the exchange, “The name’s spelled Pepper in my paper.” “Well, it was Piper in our paper.”

Granted, that’s less than deathless prose, but assuming the point is to show off The Show-Off to its best advantage, a wise director might have spent more time making it work and less creating a recorded door-slam for an offstage door that sounds more unconvincing with every slam.

Our Readers Say

It's always fascinating when a reviewer discerns that the impossible is the right way to present a play, especially one that has worked the "wrong" way for decades. Bob's contention notwithstanding, I'd defy anyone to deliver the dialogue written for Aubrey and not make him abrasive and annoying---that was the playwright's intent, and it hasn't been a secret for 70 years. That the audience ends up rooting for Aubrey despite his abrasiveness is one of the tricks of the comedy, and so far, that has been exactly how TACT audiences have responded.

As for the death of a "major character," said character vanishing after one scene and one act out of three and about 10 lines total,since the subtext of Kelly's play is to show that a relationship based on love, no matter how inexplicable (Amy and Aubrey) is still more vital than one based solely on habit and obligation (Mrs. Fisher and her departed husband), director Jarrett's choice to present the reaction to Mr. Fisher's death as perfunctory is both true to the play and consistent with the analysis of many commentators. It's tough enough being berated for doing something wrong; it really is frustrating being criticized for understanding a play by someone who, for whatever reason and uncharacteristicly, doesn't.
Jack,

While the need to defend one's own work is all fine and within your right, do you really need to comment everytime there is a negative opinion of a show that you produce?

As an audience member, I take these reviews as personal opininon and not as fact. It is up to us to go and witness the production ourselves and draw a conclusion based on that. I might add that if you have to come onto these comments sections and explain what the show is supposed be about, maybe your efforts should be more directed at putting that into the actual production.

For you to, and over at DC Theatre Scene, continually insult these reviewers because they either did not like nor (in your mind) understand the production, reflects poorly on not only yourself, but the company as well.

Im not suggesting you refrain from your right to defend, but the tone always reads as bitter. I cannot believe you expect every show you do to get raves as no company is immune to that. Get over it and yourself.
I don't usually comment on reviews,almost never, in fact, so your initial assumption is incorrect. I'm glad you take reviews with a grain of salt, but after 17 years of watching good productions lose thousands of dollars in ticket sales because of one writer's opinion, I can tell you that misrepresentations are serious and damaging. I believe that misrepresentations, accidental or otherwise, should be corrected as a duty to readers, and I believe that this particular review misrepresented the show. Tell me, what does the City Paper solicit comments for, if an informed comment has no purpose? And by what theory does a critic have the right to be insulated from criticism?

Meanwhile, I will accept your criticism when you have the courtesy and the guts to put your name behind your comments. Unless, of course, your real name is "oy."
From dc theatre scene (their review section)


Jack Marshall says:
August 12, 2012 at 10:09 am
Rebecca Ritzel’s pan of TACT’s “Marathon ’33″ (which I directed) is worth noting, first, because it flags an incompetent and lazy theater reviewer, second, because it provides a perfect template for what an unprofessional review looks like, third, because it signals that the City Paper no longer gives a damn, and fourth, because it highlights the importance of DC Theater Scene and other online resources that minimize the damage done by hacks like Ritzel.
I don’t mind incompetent reviews; I expect them. I certainly would not normally get annoyed by one outlier hit piece for a show like TACT’s “Marathon ’33″, which has been overwhelmingly well-reviewed and attended, and is a runaway hit. But when a reviewer makes it clear that she went into the show with ignorant assumptions, applied personal biases to what she observed, ignored what was readily available in the materials provided to her and spreads outright falsehood about what she saw, attention must be paid. Such a review would have been rejected by my high school newspaper. Instead, the City Paper not only printed it, but printed it with typos.
Just to touch on the most blatant misrepresentations or examples of cluelessness: The issue with the dance marathons of the 20′s and 30′s was not “poor working conditions” since it wasn’t a job, but a competition. The ethical outrage was that Americans paid to watch desperate people debase themselves and ruin their sanity and health for the chance to win a prize. This appears to have been obvious to every other reviewer and audience member, and was made explicit in materials that Ritzel was given but evidently didn’t read. Identifying playwright June Havoc as “June Rose Lee” is outrageous, demonstrating that the reviewer’s knowledge of American culture ended with a viewing of “Gypsy”—June Havoc’s career was longer, more honored, more successful and more significant than that of her stripper sister, and her courageous life earned more respect than Ritzel’s dismissive snark. No, her character does not arrive “shoeless”—what show was Ritzel watching? Her dance partner, Patsy, does not appear to be “60″, and is not repeatedly referred to as a “young man” in the script as Ritzel writes—he is, in fact NEVER called a “young man,’ nor is the character supposed to be young. Nor is there any romantic relationship between the teenaged Havoc and her partner implied or suggested in the script or the show, making Ritzel’s description of the relationship as “icky” incomprehensible. She also asserted that 15 members of the audience left at the intermission of the show she saw, which is 1) irrelevant to the quality of the production and 2) demonstrably false. TACT keeps a record of walkouts—I like them, because it means that an edgy and troubling show is doing its job. There were 5 walkouts on the night the show was reviewed, and two of those were an elderly couple who told our house manager that the intensity of the performance was too hard to watch—hardly an indictment.
Ritzel betrays her biases by sneering that the evening contains “too many” “chestnuts,” meaning the classic American ballads like “Gershwin’s “Embraceable You” that apparently aren’t jiggy enough for her. Since the show recreates a 1933 dance marathon in which music from the period has to be playing continuously, what exactly does such “criticism” mean? It means that a narrow and juvenile fake reviewer wishes that she had been at an Usher concert rather than a period drama with music about a horrible period in American history.
The signs of a lazy and disrespectful critic are everywhere—musical director Thomas D. Fuller is called “Ted Fuller,’ for example, though his correct name appears in her press packet repeatedly. The ad hominem insult to the show’s leading man, Bruce Rauscher, a former Helen Hayes nominee and recognized as one of the area’s finest actors, is similarly inexcusable. Rauscher prances, falls, fights, and hurls himself around the stage like a 20-year old; not only doesn’t he look, act or move like he is “60″ (which he is not even close to being), he does not deserve to be insulted because an amateurish reviewer wants to pretend she is John Simon.
We were expecting something like this from Ritzel–my actors asked if I knew who the unhappy woman was audience right who was distractingly shifting in her seat (those people next to her didn’t walk out, they moved to get away from HER!), grimacing, generally looking away from the action and keeping her head buried in her notebook during the performance in question. It is the height of unprofessional conduct for a supposed critic to enter a theater with a chip on her shoulder and display such evident disinterest and displeasure that it distracts the actors and audience members.
And why is the City Paper, once the locale for the most perceptive, provocative and professional theater criticism in the DC metropolitan area, employing such a disgrace and printing her trash without so much as cursory oversight and quality control? Why would they allow an obvious incompetent to undermine the success of a risky and ambitious theatrical project by a small professional theater company, when the publication has traditionally been a valued catalyst for culture and artistic endeavor? Apparently they got the memo that theater doesn’t matter any more, like all the local TV channels, like the Washington Times, like so many media outlets that once cared about informing theater-goers competently and being fair to the fools who devote time, passion, money and talent to the greatest and most imperiled form of performance art.
So that, for me, is the silver-lining to Ritzel’s hatchet job. Now we know the score.

Rarely?


One correction: maybe Mr. Styles has a different dictionary than I do, but in mine, “old chestnut” means an “overly repeated story.” Since we have yet to find an audience member who has seen a previous production of Kelly’s play (which leads all comedies in film adaptations and Broadway productions, though none recently), it is clear that “The Show-Off” has not been “overly repeated” in the DC theater scene—indeed, it has been thoroughly neglected for decades.

Which is why the American Century Theater is presenting it. The company does not produce “chestnuts.”
Also:
"Jack Marshall on January 15, 2013 at 9:52 am said:

I challenge anyone to produce a 3 act 1920′s play with two intermissions in less than two hours. The reviewer was watching the clock when he should have been watching the show. The line pick-ups are lightning quick in Jarrett;s direction. If there are pauses—a wife should have a moment to reflect on the fact that her husband has died; a pause is unavoidable if the playwright is showing us that a husband is so distracted that he doesn’t even hear his wife when she is talking to him——they are demanded by the script, integrity, and fairness to the playwright—and George Kelly deserves the respect. Three act comedies usually have a slowish first act to set up the story, and there’s not a thing a director can do other than cast compelling actors who are interesting to watch even before all Hell breaks loose….and Stephen did that.
As the company’s artistic director, I’ve watched directors deal with this issue many times. Sometimes we have failed—not with “The Show-Off.”

The criticism of the direction is inaccurate and unfair."

Just sayin'. Don't worry, my name is Redhedwig. :)

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