The tension between a powerful social hierarchy and an unconventional hero, often an underdog, provides a frequent source of mid-20th-century American comedy. The friction arises in Mary Chase’s Harvey, Abe Burrows, Howard Teichmann and George S. Kaufman’s The Solid Gold Cadillac, Philip Barry’s Holiday, and Thomas Heggen and Joshua Logan’s Mr. Roberts. The sympathy for the heroes of those comedies is a foregone conclusion: they are on the side of the angels, as it were. But that’s surprisingly not the case in George Kelly’s The Show-Off, a hard-edged 1920s work admirably revived by the Peccadillo Theater Company. Kelly’s title character, Aubrey Piper, is a great creation, an annoying rascal and a liar, and one waits impatiently for him to get his comeuppance.
Kelly, the uncle of Princess Grace, is hardly known nowadays, although he won a Pulitzer Prize for his 1925 play Craig’s Wife, and two plays, Philip Goes Forth and The Fatal Weakness, have had strong productions by the Mint, Peccadillo’s rival in unearthing neglected gems. In The Show-Off, the insufferable “blatherskite” Aubrey (Ian Gould) meets his match in Josie Fisher, a mother of flinty Irish stock whose daughter he is wooing. Written in 1924 at the height of the Roaring Twenties, The Show-Off is a blackly comic postcard that shows the working class has always struggled to make ends meet, even in the best of times.
Mrs. Fisher, played with gimlet-eyed feistiness by the wonderful Annette O’Toole, has two daughters. The one that Aubrey is pursuing is Amy (Emma Orelove), a free-spending, irresponsible girl who can’t see through Aubrey’s wild schemes and high-falutin’ language. (“Come on, Amy, step on the United Gas out there; customer in here waiting for the old aqua pura,” says Aubrey, asking for a glass of water.) His jibber-jabber and back-slapping become too much for Josie’s husband, Neil, who exclaims, “I never saw such a damn pest in my life!”
Josie’s older daughter, Clara (Elise Hudson), is much less a worry, since she’s already married to Frank Hyland, a steady worker (Aaron Gaines); still, Frank spends a lot of time working and not a lot with Clara—it’s pretty clear he’s having an affair. Meanwhile, Neil and Josie’s son, Joe, is an inventor toiling away in the basement to find a non-rusting alloy. Indeed, the theory of metals he has mentioned to Aubrey eventually comes back out of Aubrey’s mouth and to Joe’s ears as Aubrey’s own invention. The lying braggart bemoans the way his discovery was treated by captains of industry. But, Aubrey says, he has written the Secretary of the Treasury to complain: “I put a question up to Secretary Mellon, in a letter six weeks ago—that absolutely stumped him, because I haven’t had a line from him since!”
Under Dan Wackerman’s direction, the pudgy Gould inflicts every irritation that his obnoxious character can put upon the others as he swans around the gorgeously detailed living room and parlor that Harry Feiner has designed (with, however, one glaring misstep: a pocket door would never be backing a fireplace).
In spite of Kelly’s admiration for Josie’s hard-nosed practicality, the play acknowledges the Fisher family’s flaws. Josie tells Amy: “Like a lot of others, you’re very shrewd about money while you’re at home, as far as what you give your mother and father is concerned; but the minute some clown, with a flower in his coat and patent-leather shoes, winks at you, you seem to forget there’s such a thing in the world as a ton of coal.”
Josie’s skepticism, however, is allied with a poverty of imagination: “Talkin’ about Shakespeare,” she says of Aubrey. “What kind of goin’ on is that for a sensible man?” Kelly makes it clear that the working class may be blinkered when it comes to culture—although Aubrey is probably the worst ambassador imaginable. “Sic transit gloria mundi,” he bloviates to a visitor delivering personal belongings. “It’s an old saying from the French,” he explains wrongly, but with head-tossing confidence. “‘Here today, gone tomorrow.’”
The second and third acts jump forward by blocks of time, encompassing setbacks to the Fisher family while proving serendipitous boons to Aubrey, who marries Amy but manages to lose his job, wreck his car in an accident that’s entirely his fault, and become unemployed—and unemployable. Aubrey’s inability to provide for Amy fulfills Josie’s predictions, and then some. From the start Josie knows his salary won’t keep her daughter, but she cannot dissuade Amy from marrying Aubrey, and ultimately the family has to prop him up. In the final moments, though, Kelly springs a last twist that proves darkly ironic yet feels just right.
The Peccadillo Theater Company’s production of George Kelly’s The Show-Off runs through Oct. 21 at Theatre at St. Clement’s (423 West 46th St., between Ninth and Tenth avenues. Tickets are $49 and now available by calling OvationTix at (866) 811-4111 or visiting thepeccadillo.com.