Hampered by pacing problems and a couple of lackluster opening scenes, the Denver Center Theatre Company's production of The Show-Off doesn't hit its stride until the end of Act One, when a mother-daughter debate over love and marriage kicks the proceedings into high gear.
Penned by veteran vaudeville entertainer George Kelly (who also just happened to be Princess Grace's uncle) and set in a modest Philadelphia neighborhood, the 1924 Broadway hit is being presented at the Ricketson Theatre under the direction of Nagle Jackson. Featuring a cast of DCTC regulars and some welcome returnees, the three-act smiler initially looks and sounds like a dreary drawing-room debate, replete with dull dialogue that sounds phony and forced. No matter how hard the performers try to look and sound comfortable while inhabiting designer Michael Ganio's detailed setting, it's clear in the early going that they haven't mastered the play's deceptively pedestrian rhythms. (On opening night, a few in the cast stumbled over their lines and had trouble picking up their cues.)
Once the practical-minded Mrs. Fisher and her dreamy daughter, Amy, get into it over Amy's beau, however, Kelly's bittersweet look at pretense, hard work and the value of a dollar unfolds in fine comic fashion. When Amy's parents and siblings all leave the room while boyfriend Aubrey Piper holds forth on subjects he knows nothing about, the young woman locks horns with her mother. Mrs. Fisher takes pains to tell her daughter that the insufferable braggart of the play's title isn't, as he claims to be, a highly paid supervisor at the Pennsylvania Railroad; he's merely a poorly paid clerk. When Amy declares that she'll remain true to Aubrey through thick and thin, Ma reminds her, "There are ways of starving to death without getting enough to eat." Naturally, that remark only bolsters Amy and Aubrey's determination to marry -- and later, to take up residence a little too close to Ma. The balance of the 155-minute play explores how Aubrey -- plagued by insecurities that cause him to exaggerate and posture -- has invented his past, window-dressed his present, and mortgaged his future.
Ricketson Theatre, in the Helen Bonfils Theatre Complex at 14th and Curtis streets
Through December 16
Gradually, the actors forge a playing style that lies somewhere between Kaufman and Hart-style hijinks and Chekhov-like poignancy -- a combination that elicits knowing laughter one moment and thoughtful silence the next. The affable Jamie Horton struts through the role of Aubrey like a falsely plumed peacock ever in danger of being found out for the pigeon he really is. As his polar opposite, Kathleen M. Brady renders a strong, humorous portrait. When tragedy strikes her household, the formidable matriarch learns that being pragmatic doesn't solve every problem; for a moment, she even seems more helpless than Aubrey pretends not to be. Christopher Kelly, who was so appealing in the DCTC's The Cripple of Inishmaan last season, is once again a breath of fresh air -- this time as the Fishers' son, Joe, an aspiring inventor who's as shrewd as he is creative. Elizabeth Rainer nicely conveys Amy's desire to rise above her family's humdrum ways without totally rejecting them. As her older sister, Clara, Annette Helde manifests similar qualities, but in more subtle ways: Although Clara appears to be vastly different from the rest of the clan -- her fur wraps and stylish dresses stand in sharp relief to the others' drab clothing -- Helde always lets us know that her character remains emotionally close to her family. Several supporting players echo Helde's deft touches. Mark Rubald employs understated humor in his enjoyable portrait of a fastidious insurance salesman; Erik Tieze is a compassionate and straight-shooting workman; William Denis makes a fine, occasionally disgruntled patriarch; and Greg Thornton demonstrates that Clara's husband, Frank, has more up his sleeve than an ability to make good business deals.
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Apart from its shaky beginnings, the decently staged production ultimately proves entertaining. And while Kelly's writing sometimes trumpets morals and themes that most people would probably appreciate getting in more roundabout ways, Jackson and company communicate the writer's ideas with simplicity, avoiding, for the most part, flowery excess. That less-is-more approach seems the perfect complement to Kelly's message about how one attains -- and, more important here, reflects -- self-worth and self-respect.