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.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on September 29, 2017