By Ina B. Chadwick
Westport is a town that is ferociously loyal to its art institutions. Even when we disagree, it’s almost like family. Shush!
And that is exactly why I have waited until close to the end of the play, “The Show-Off, “now running until Saturday at the Westport Country Playhouse, to post this opinion essay.
It’s important to remember that ticket sales and subscriptions keep the Westport Country Playhouse viable, and our town relies on that venerable creative institution to keep all of us zip-code-proud. And well we should.
While I have at times asked difficult questions for these “Insider Arts” pieces, more often questioning the “why” of a play, I have always applauded the courage of the creative team to put “it” out there and take the heat if it’s not what the audience likes.
For the most part every season under Mark Lamos has had some stellar choices, ranging from those that thrilled the individual ticket holders and subscribers. Some had to be held over. Ticket sales were brisk on “The Dining Room,” and many people hadn’t planned on seeing it until they heard the raves—those who buy tickets based upon the show’s current buzz or popularity.
There have been plays with meager audiences that I thought were brilliant. If artistic merit were based on popularity, you’d never see anything groundbreaking.
For “The Show-Off,” paint me yellow for “coward” or “dumb” for hitting the comment button too quickly on a friend’s Facebook wall when she wrote that she found the play “dreadful” and asked if I was going to ignore the debacle and take pity on the Playhouse.
Okay it was late and I said what I thought in one sentence, lamenting having spent the evening indoors at a very long play. Plenty of people left right after Act II. I took the post down. Hello new world!
When the curtain went up in Act I, a Craftsman-style dining room was, as with most of the Westport Country Playhouse sets, impressive. And the verve with which the first two characters burst onto the stage in this family comedy written by Patrick Kelly in 1924 and considered a benchmark script for structure back in the days, gave me the impression that we were in good hands.
I liked these robust women; Clara, played by Mia Barron, and her mother, Mrs. Fisher, played by Jane Houdyshell, are having quite the voluble and believable mother/daughter diatribe about Amy, the younger sister, and her blowhard boyfriend, Aubrey.
Amy, played by an ethereal Clea Alsip sails into the room leaving a trail of scarves and necklaces. She’s missing an earring and creating disarray in her search. She could care less. She’s in love.
I still thought I was in good hands with director Nicholas Martin.
Enter Aubrey Piper played by Will Rogers—the supposedly brash, braggadocio who has won the heart of the fey and beautiful youngest daughter.
Aubrey appeared to be a rubber-bodied, tipsy Red Skelton-type (for those who remember the master mugging clown), and it was hard to envision anyone being head-over-heels-in-love-with-him. All he was missing was a red rubber nose.
I was immediately alert to the indisputable fact that this might be a farce, not a comedy. After Aubrey’s entrance, I was on disconnect. It was as if he were in a different play.
I’ve seen my share of blowhards, and if you watch reruns of “All in the Family,” or if you had the pleasure of seeing “August at Osage County,” the fools are aplenty and they aid the other actors. But Aubrey existed in his own microclimate. I needed another set of eyes and ears to listen and watch.
For me when Act III should be shifting gracefully back to comedy after the steadfast father, Mr. Fisher, played by Adam Levere, in the working class family dies suddenly near his locker at the factory he has worked in for years, enter Aubrey again. It’s a one-man show that obscured anyone else. Self-centered may be the point, but self-propelled by what feels like insanity didn’t’ cut it.
Perplexing and distracting, not a cast that was playing to one another. An incongruous mish-mosh.
I found it interesting to read later that Skelton played the role of Aubrey in a movie version of “The Show-Off.” I wondered if Will Rogers, who said in an interview that at first he didn’t get the role, if he finally got into it via conjuring Skelton. It was quite uncanny.
Today, I will leave it to the dear readers who follow my columns to read both the good, (and there were solidly good reviews), the tepid, and less than nice reviews for the rest of what went wrong (or right?) at the Playhouse on Saturday, June 16, — press night.
Most praise goes to the reviewer who wrote about who was in the audience that night and not a word about the play. She spoke without speaking. That said a lot about how ferociously loyal she was to her town.
You be the critic of the critics. Agree or disagree.
Links to reviews of “The Show-Off:”
Ina Chadwick, who holds nine New England Press Association Awards from the prehistoric days of newspapers, has been producing, and performing, storytelling programs at The Fairfield Museum and History Center, The Bijou Theatre, Westport Arts Center and Two Boots, and now La Rue Elayne will present her new program,“Live Magazine at the Falls,” a variety show featuring storytellers and musicians in the Garrison Keillor tradition. Her radio hour, “Real People, Real Stories,” at www.mousemuse.com can be heard every fourth Saturday on WPKN 89.5 FM and www.wpkin.org streaming live.