“The Show-Off” at the Westport Country Playhouse shines a bright light on a superior cast, a wickedly good set, and charmingly warm and inviting lighting and sound design. You want to enter this cozy home in George Kelly’s play. It’s a pleasant entertainment that steps into an American family a few generations ago. In the pre-curtain speech, artistic director Mark Lamos said that it was a well constructed and quiet play and so it is.
Playwright George Kelly’s messages on morality and family values come across in subtle ways. Nonetheless the modern audience picks up on Kelly’s priorities right away. No one likes an egomaniac liar; romantic love is ridiculous; family values are important; and hard work and inventiveness pay off. Well directed and paced by Nicholas Martin this three-act play with two intermissions passes quickly and pleasantly.
Set in Philadelphia in the 1920s, the Fisher household tries to come to terms with the newest member of the family — Aubrey Piper, the quintessential show-off. Aubrey is married to Amy, a romantic who is love-blinded to Aubrey’s flaws, and her family has a difficult time tolerating Aubrey’s pretentious ways. Considering that he is a clerk who makes little money, he poses as an intellectual tycoon and makes up the most outrageous lies.
Considering that the title of the play is “The Show-Off,” it says a great deal that the most memorable performance in this production is played by the matriarch of the family. Mrs. Fisher is realistically and delightfully portrayed by Jayne Houdyshell. Will Rogers plays the title role, but his performance is more like a caricature than a believable person. Since the playwright has developed each of the characters in this work with great depth, it’s hard to buy into Rogers’ take on the show-off. It’s true that many people have come across a show-off or two in their lives. Some of these narcissistic people who can’t walk past a mirror without primping themselves have the same self-delusionary qualities seen in Aubrey Piper. However, Will Rogers’ performance of Aubrey is too affected and artificial even taking into consideration that the character is supposed to exaggerate his grandiose perception of himself. He is a symbol, but he’s also supposed to be human.
Clea Alsip plays the love-stricken wife of Aubrey and is the youngest daughter in the family. Her performance is so endearing that even as the audience watches her make the mistake of her life, she gains the audience’s empathy. Mia Barron plays the rational older daughter, who has everything in life except love. Karl Baker Olson takes on the role of the inventive son, Joe, who does well for himself and leaves the family home proudly. Adam Lefevre as the head of the family, Mr. Fisher, portrays an exemplary hard-working American who sees to the well-being of his family. Also performing with excellence are Robert Eli, Nat Dewolf, and Marc Vietor.
What is most difficult to swallow in this production is the ending. Throughout the play Aubrey’s actions confirm that he cannot help but consistently lie, brag, and do the most preposterous and stupid things. Yet at the very end of the play, it is possible to interpret his meddling and interference as a great financial boost to the family. Mind you, there are two ways to look at this ending. It is either a miraculous metamorphosis, something akin to Moliere’s “Sun King” implausible happy endings, or Aubrey is just fabricating another lie. It is just too hard to believe that this nincompoop suddenly comes through for the family and has a complete turn-about.
I’m inclined to believe that he read the information in the newspaper, heard Joe describe the deal and then stepped in to claim undeserved praise. You can decide for yourself. The show plays through June 29. Box office: 203-227-4177.
Joanne Greco Rochman is an active member in The American Theatre Critics Association, and covers art and culture in a blog for CBS and CBS-CT. She welcomes comments. Contact: [email protected]