The Show-Off by George Kelly: an analysis for production

The Show-Off: A Transcript of Life in Three Acts by George Kelly, Copyright 1924.
In recent theater history, we have seen countless single set drawing room comedies. In 1924, however, George Kelly was seen as a pioneer by putting tragically flawed, middle-income men and women in honest situations within a simpler, realistic set and letting the action unfold. Up to this point, slick, witty dialogue and broad characters drawn from “polite society” were the norm. Enter Aubrey Piper, a thirty-five dollar (AND fifty-cent) per week railroad clerk with a fresh carnation in his lapel, a fine overcoat (on payment) on his back, a toupee on his head and a penchant for hyperbole. If his braying laughter is any bellwether, we all know that Aubrey is full of “blatherskite” before he breached the front door. It turns out that sometimes “blatherskite” is just what one needs to save the day.

Navigating archaic expressions sometimes makes “Show-Off” a difficult read. This reader was forced to assume from context what must be done to “side the parlor” or “sit around with your arms as long as each other.” Mrs. Fisher, a role played for years by the great Helen Hayes, and the principal foil to the protagonist, may well be creating her idioms as she goes. Some gags, like a scene of unsuccessful discreteness with a box of candies are unnecessary to the historically 2 and ½ hour period comedy with two intermissions. Nonetheless, most modern reviews (1993, Stamford, CT; 2013, DC) report the action moves quickly. I recommend a table reading with several voices to truly give ear to the rhythm and effect of the comedic dialogue. It has very few strong laughs when one sits and reads alone. Any producing entity should note that the play has inspired several broadway revivals between 1926 and 1992, and multiple film versions.

Cast: 3 women, 6 men

Set: Single interior: 1924 working class home: living/dining and visible music room with piano

Costumes: Approximately 3 changes for each. Period clothing (1924).

Royalties: Minimum Fee: $75 per performance

Running Time: Approximately 2 ½ hours

Pros: Smaller cast with 1 star role (Aubrey Piper, late 20s, early 30s) and very strong supporting role (Mrs. Fisher, late 50’s); incredible history of successful productions

One set; fits in most small theatres. NOT SET IN NYC!

Cons: The play has had no recent regional productions to spur interest and will be unknown to most regional audiences. Some dialogue is dated (but colorful!)

Provenance:

Nominated for Pulitzer Prize (1924)

The Show-Off has inspired several revivals (1932, 1937, 1950, 1967, 1968, 1992) and multiple film versions:

  • The Show Off (1924), silent
  • Men Are Like That (1930)
  • The Show Off (1934) with Spencer Tracy
  • The Show-Off (1946) with Red Skelton
  • The Show-Off (1955), CBS-TV

Playwright:
George Kelly, may currently be best known a Grace Kelly (The Princess of Monaco)’s uncle, but in his own career, not only was this play was nominated for the Pulitzer, his next play Craig’s Wife, won that award in 1925. He is the playwright of 11 successfully produced plays from 1923-1947. His first three plays were the basis for 9 motion pictures!

Modern Reviews:

Strong:

NYTimes

Nytheatre.com

Predominantly positive:

DC Metro Theatre Arts

Mixed:
DC Theatre Scene (play:good, production: heavy handed)

Hartford Courant

Washington City Paper (play:good, production: heavy handed)

Harsh:
Variety (hates play)

Recommendation: Worth a try
Purchase:
Samuel French

Available for lending from Southern Illinois University, University of Illinois at Champaign Urbana, Millikin, Bradley University, Principia College

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