George Kelly (1887–1974) has largely been consigned to the footnotes of theater history, forgotten in favor of contemporaries like Eugene O’Neill and George S. Kaufman. But for a time in the 1920s and ‘30s, the Philadelphia-born playwright (and uncle to Princess Grace) dominated Broadway with razor-sharp satires of the era’s social mores. It’s for this reason that a revival of The Show-Off by the New York–based Peccadillo Theater Company feels like a discovery.
Kelly was among the first recipients of the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, but the dozen plays he penned between 1923 and 1947 are rarely produced today. A smash hit in its day — the original production ran more than 600 more performances — Kelly’s 1924 comedy marries a drawing-room aesthetic to the politics of the day. The divide between brash progressivism and conservative propriety take the form of a clash between a preening popinjay and the pragmatic mother of his would-be wife.
Middle-class values vs. upward mobility
The Fishers of North Philadelphia are a model of Irish Catholic respectability. Mrs. Fisher (Annette O’Toole) firmly believes in the sanctity of a modest middle-class home as something to which all people should aspire. She’s the kind of woman who, in the midst of a crisis, instructs her eldest daughter Clara (the witty and endearing Elise Hudson) to pick up the living room because “you don’t know who might be coming here.” No greater tragedy exists in her mind than a married woman who still works.
Clara lives up to her mother’s expectations, marrying a steadfast businessman who can afford to keep her in new dresses and employ a maid. Her son Joe (Tirosh Schneider, slightly too contemporary) has an aptitude for chemistry that makes her proud. The squeaky wheel is middle daughter Amy (Emma Orelove, a University of the Arts graduate), a spendthrift who’s taken up with Aubrey Piper (Ian Gould), the self-styled poseur of the play’s title.
Kelly assigns many outrageous qualities to Aubrey — he speaks almost exclusively in self-aware slang; dresses far above his station, right down to the silk carnation in his lapel (Barbara A. Bell designed the pitch-perfect costumes); and even wears a toupee (designed by Paul Huntley, who also supplied the superb wigs worn by the Fisher women). But although he’s a fop and a faker, Kelly stops short of making him grotesque. Rather, he represents an upwardly mobile optimism that flourished in the final gilded years before the Great Depression.
Director Dan Wackerman further downplays the inherent comedy in Aubrey’s outlandish posturing, which serves to foreground the play’s surprisingly radical underpinnings. It also puts Aubrey on equal footing with Mrs. Fisher, whom O’Toole imbues with a delicious sense of righteousness. Gould certainly finds the funny in Aubrey’s most idiosyncratic turns of phrase — his go-to rejoinder is “Right on the dotted line!” — but he also presents a classic striver, projecting charisma rather than foolhardiness as he works to elevate his position in society. You can tell why Amy’s crazy for him.
A queer sensibility
Kelly kept his sexual orientation secret his entire life, even convincing his family that his lover of 50 years was his butler. But The Show-Off is shot through with a noticeably queer sensibility. This manifests itself most clearly in Clara’s comfortable but unfulfilling marriage to Frank Hyland (Aaron Gaines, memorable in just a few short scenes), a man whose genuine wealth belies “a couple of mistakes that can’t be paid for.” A knowing resignation washes over Clara when, late in the play, Frank tells her he won’t be home for dinner — he has a prior engagement with an unnamed gentleman.
Aubrey, too, can be read as an avatar of queerness. Set apart from the staid Fishers by his colorful appearance and boundary-pushing ideas, he represents an existential threat to the very fabric of their conventional lives. Kelly understood how to communicate the cosmic weight of his sexuality through his misfit protagonist.
Bringing Kelly home
Some basic internet sleuthing suggests The Show-Off hasn’t been produced in Philadelphia for at least three decades. That should change. As I watched Peccadillo’s fine staging, I frequently cast the leading roles with local actors in my head. A skilled director could smartly balance the work’s comedic elements with its social consciousness. It’s high time one of Philadelphia’s native sons — and most criminally neglected playwrights — achieves the prominence he deserves.