Most of us get our fill of chestnuts in December, but save a little room — if you’re feeling sentimental — for the one served up by The American Century Theater this month.
It took a few weeks beyond the holiday to get roasted — at two and a half hours with two intermissions, this is one of the thicker nuts in the basket — but that’s no matter. Under Stephen Jarrett’s direction, the show comes off as a comfortable, slow-burning treat. The mindful heat applied to this oldie, a chewy but lightly amusing 1924 comedy by George Kelly, turns what might have been a stale meal into something warm and earnestly cooked.
Helping today’s audiences revisit the past century’s best plays is what American Century does best, and although the pride with which The Show-Off shows its age wears more charmingly in certain moments than in others, it’s a suitably entertaining sample of a popular breed of realistic American parlor plays on rotation in the early twentieth century.
Kelly crafted this three-act moral drama with a practiced blend of the workmanlike and the whimsical: the plot, while lengthy, brings few surprises, and yet the humor peppered through it puts enough spring in the characters’ steps to keep the show moving briskly.
So be patient during the first scenes, when nothing much happens (one early scene places several long minutes of focus onto a newly-arrived box of bonbons, to no particularly effect) because things do speed up a bit once the bombastic Aubrey Piper (David Gram) arrives, eagerly prodding at the playwright’s neatly arranged dramatic dominos.
The city is Philadelphia, the decade is the twenties. Living day-to-day within a momentary historical lull– the Great War done, and the Depression still to come — is the Fisher family, headed by Mr. Fisher (Craig Miller, suitably gruff) and held together by Mrs. Fisher (a commendable and committed Lee Mikeska Gardner). Older daughter Clara (Jenna Berk) has been wed to Frank Hyland (Nello DeBlasio), and even if the two don’t love each other a whole lot, at least he can comfortably provide for her and buy her pretty things (note Clara’s fox-fur stole, provided by costume designer Erin Nugent).
Uh oh, but wait — younger daughter Amy (Erin E. McGuff) has her doe eyes set on the supremely irritating Piper, and not only does she seem (against all odds) to love him, she doesn’t even care whether he has enough money to support her. The increasingly deep waves of chagrin that pass across her mother’s face from scene to scene are predictable — and, as performed by Gardner, priceless.
Closes Feburary 2, 2013
Gunston Arts Center
2700 S. Lang Street
2 hours, 30 minutes with 2 intermission2
Tickets: $35 – $40
Thursdays thru Sundays
The Show-Off, while not an exceptionally long play, was likely to feel much, much longer than it does. That’s a big credit to Jarrett and to his nicely calibrated cast of actors, each of whom successfully taps into a period demeanor without playing it too broadly. They make nimble work of Kelly’s script, trotting smartly across the handful of redundant sequences right in time with the more central events. No actor disappoints (Evan Crump, Bill Gordon, and Joe Cronin all impress in smaller roles). And the set, designed by Leigh-Ann Friedel, feels at turns expansive and intimate, which times out nicely to the show’s evolving needs.
And Gram, bless his heart, reveals a number of layers beneath his character’s obnoxious exterior. Like Geronte in Cornielle’s The Liar — wonderfully adapted by David Ives at the Shakespeare Theatre Company in 2010 — Piper is forced to run a few extra circles around the rest to keep up the appearance of authenticity.
Gram’s task, in turn, is to put an actor’s educated oomph into this capricious hero’s journey from brash, bragging fool to regretful family man. It requires some unexpected grace, and Gram makes it look easy while doing it. Honest.
The Show-Off by George Kelly . Directed by Stephen Jarrett . Featuring Lee Mikeska Gardner, Craig Miller, David Gram, Erin E. McGuff, Jenna Berk, Joe Cronin, Evan Crump, Nello DeBlasio and Bill Gordon. Creative staff: Set: Leigh-Ann Friedel . Props: Joshua Aaron Rosenblum. Lightineg . Jedidiah Roe . Costumes: Erin Nugent . Sound: Ed Moser . Master Carpenter: Jonathan Hudspeth . Lindsey Moore is the Stage Manager and Johanna Schoenborn is the Assistant Stage Manager. Produced by The American Century Theater . Reviewed by Hunter Styles.
John Glass . DramaUrge
Bob Mondello . City Paper
Susan Berlin . Talkin’Broadway
Kate Wingfield . MetroWeekly
Brian Bochicchio . MDTheatreGuide
David Friscic . DCMetroTheaterArts
John Glass . DramaUrge
Arthur Fergenson says
Seek and ye shall find: I am to be an audience member this evening, and I have seen two different productions of The Show-Off, the first being the stunningly good Ellis Rabb production at the APA Phoenix in New York many years ago, which co-starred Helen Hayes. Miss Hayes, unfortunately, kept going up on her lines. The second was the Irene Lewis directed production at CenterStage, Baltimore, in the much more recent past. It was the best direction that Irene Lewis gave at CenterStage, on whose board I served for 19 years. I saw that production twice, and I rarely do so. It was exquisite. And the mother was played by the same actress who played the daughter opposite Ellis Rabb.
The play is beautifully crafted and sympathetic to its characters and to the audience. I am looking forward to this evening.
Thanks as always Jack for your attentive eye. My apologies to any readers who found this review unclear or hard to follow beyond the first sentence due to choice of nut.
Jack Marshall says
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.”