Possibly you are familiar with a guy like Aubrey Piper, the egotistical title figure of The Show-Off: Aubrey is a noisy know-it-all whose sense of truth is only marginally anchored in reality. Unlike our present White House occupant, however, the flashy, feckless Aubrey possesses a goofy amiability that causes audiences to chuckle over his braggadocio even as he drives nearly everyone around him crazy. Among Broadway’s longest-running hits of the Twenties, The Show-Off is a comedy-drama that regards Aubrey’s intrusion by marriage into a working-class Philadelphia family. The backslapping Aubrey swaggers around the Fisher family’s staid parlor as if he were president of the Pennsylvania Railroad rather than merely one of its $32-a-week shipping clerks. Aubrey’s prime antagonist in the household is Mrs. Fisher, his crabby mother-in-law given to muttering remarks like, “Everybody will have trouble if they live long enough.”
The playwright, George Kelly, was a specialist both in crafting psychological studies — as with his harrowing portrait of a materialistic woman in the Pulitzer Prize–winning Craig’s Wife — and in detailing the gab and manners of his era. The Show-Off presents an incidental time capsule of bourgeois American life, circa 1924, when only the next-door neighbors owned a telephone, and folks worried about the cost of coal for their furnace.
The story’s tricky mix of comical and serious doings — midway through, there is an unexpected death in the family — makes the play a challenging one to produce, and the Peccadillo Theater Company’s new revival does not effectively fuse its contrasts. There needs to be a subtle stylization to the acting and the visuals, but such an effect eludes Dan Wackerman, the company’s artistic director, whose flat-footed staging yields a mostly dull occasion. Moreover, the fuzzy acoustics of the Theatre at St. Clement’s are no friend to Kelly’s should-be-snappy dialogue.
Perhaps best known for playing Clark Kent’s adoptive mom in the Smallville TV series, Annette O’Toole grimly depicts Mrs. Fisher as a matron more sour than amusingly tart. Ian Gould gives his florid Aubrey the requisite eccentric body language and a braying laugh, but there often is a sense that he is straining to be funny. Tirosh Schneider provides the sweetest performance among the nine-member cast as a sunshiny Fisher sibling whose fortuitous talent as an inventor gives the play its unexpected happy conclusion. In the end, The Show-Off remains, as ever, akin to a fine old fiddle: If properly tuned, it will produce pleasing music. Here, the tone is not pitched correctly, and so this interpretation of Kelly’s vintage piece seems scratchy.