The show: "The Show-Off" at Westport Country Playhouse
What makes it special?: Actress Jayne Houdyshell. Nicholas Martin directing comedy. A rare revival of George Kelly's sly and subversive 1924 play.
First impressions: The American Craftsman-style home that is the setting of this George Kelly "dramedy" (as the theater's artistic director Mark Lamos refers to it) is much like the play: Solid, strong and built to last. Even the rocking chair in Alexander Dodge's homey set looks like it wouldn't budge in a tornado, especially if Houdyshell, playing Mrs. Fisher, the family's formidable, well-grounded matriarch, is sitting in it. This is a woman who is down-to-earth, who doesn't cotton to change, who is a force to be reckoned with. But even this no-nonsense woman is at her considerable wit's end when faced against her daughter's over-the-top, self-aggrandizing beau: Aubrey Piper.
Sounds promising: Oh, it is. Here are two American archetypes squaring off against each other. One is a common-sense conservative (with a slightly bigoted streak); the other a bravado dreamer.
But there's something that is fundamentally shaky about the foundation of this production.
Which is?: The title character. Will Rogers gives an audacious performance as the braggart who has mesmerized Mrs. Fisher's daughter Amy (Clea Alsip, who recently played opposite Kathleen Turner in "The Killing of Sister George" at Long Wharf Theatre).
So the problem is…?: It's too audacious. Although his eccentric performance has several amusing comic quirks, it's the one performance in the ensemble that's not rooted in any reality. Yes, the man is a fool with a braying laugh but there's something about his character (and about that part of the American character, too, for that matter) that others find irresistible. Every other character in the play with the exception of Mrs. Fisher finds something lovable, decent, inspiring or appealing about the man. And so should the audience.
But Rogers take on Aubrey is not only from another production, it's from another planet. There's a part of me that wants to applaud the sheer nerve of the actor –- but it just doesn't make any sense in the production, nor mesh with the authenticity of the rest of the cast. Without at least one foot in the real world, this Aubrey is beyond the pale. Way beyond it
What's it about?: Despite Mrs. Fisher's misgivings, Amy, the spendthrift flapper, is madly in love with Aubrey, a dandy, a serial boaster and a man incapable of telling even an inconsequential truth. He's a low-salaried railroad clerk but brags that he practically runs the railroad. He holds forth imperiously with cockamamie theories about business, science and the legal system.
He doesn't fool Amy's sister Clara (Mia Barron, sympathetically and subtly played) nor her distant businessman husband (Robert Eli), nor her young inventor brother, Joe (a sweet, fresh-faced Karl Baker Olson). They all see through his self-fluffing but are either charmed, amused or even envious of Aubrey's optimism, chutzpah and morality. Clara longs for the faithful devotion Aubrey has for Amy. Her husband sees something in Aubrey he wishes he still possessed. The kind-hearted Joe gives Aubrey his dumb-luck due following a delicious plot turn.
Even non-family members who drop by the house buy into Aubrey's spiel. There's Mr. Gill (Nat DeWolf), a co-worker of Mr. Fisher (Adam LeFevre) and an insurance agent (Marc Vietor), both of whom get carried away on Aubrey's boasts.
But not the immovable Mrs. Fisher — and neither does the audience. Without seeking at least a flicker of the good, the vulnerable and the genuine, Aubrey is just a cartoon plunked down in a play rooted in naturalism. But Aubrey's backslapping swagger should be as natural as America's sense of blind exceptionalism; it just has to find a believable way to work in that oh-so-solid and real room.
Who will like it?: Jayne Houdyshell fans. Those seeking out rarely-produced American works. Flim-flammers.
Who won't?: Those who don't suffer fools well.
For the kids?: The more mature ones, sure. What kid won't identify with a cranky mother and a jolly idiot. But it does have three acts.
Twitter review in 140 characters or less: Too much showing off.
Thoughts on leaving the parking lot: There's a dark plot turn in the second act that takes the play into non-comedic territory that must have been startling to audiences then. It still is. But it reminds me that Kelly was going after something more than a one-joke boulevard comedy. In his wonderful capturing of daily dialogue, in his love of middle-class details, in his ability to create characters with humanity as well as humor, Kelly proved he was a dramatist who wasn't just showing off.
The basics: The show runs through June 29. The play runs 2 hours and 40 minutes, including two intermissions. Performances are Tuesdays at 8 p.m.; Wednesdays at 2 and 8 p.m.; Thursdays and Fridays at 8 p.m.; Saturdays at 3 and 8 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m. Tickets are $30 to $65. Information at 203-227-4177 and toll-freee at 1-88-927-7529 and www.westportplayhouse,org.