Germinal Stage makes an off-choice with The Show-Off
Sometimes I don't understand the decision-making at Germinal Stage Denver. I've had some of the most stimulating evenings of my life in this homey, cozy, unchanging little theater where — as the website blurb assures us — the actors are never more than thirty feet from your nose. I've seen gutsy literary picks here — daring or obscure, classic, absurdist, entirely contemporary — as well as rip-roaring comedies and luminous, heart-rending takes on Tennessee Williams. Some Germinal plays have stayed on my mind, with scenes permanently etched in my memory: artistic director-actor Ed Baierlein facing off with fiercely talented then-youngster Conor O'Farrell in Death of a Salesman back in the 1980s; the oneiric speech and scene-weaving of Circe — Chapter Fifteen, Baierlein's brilliant arrangement of James Joyce's Ulysses, as well as Terry Burnsed's haunting performance in the lead role; Sallie Diamond gleefully hamming it up as Lady Rumpers in Alan Bennet's Habeas Corpus; Baierlein as the eccentric Shotover in Shaw's Heartbreak House, listening while Kristina Denise Pitt's Ellie — so strong-willed and so full of life — declares her love for him.
But then Germinal chooses scripts that I can't figure out why anyone would produce, and stages productions that are stiffly acted and tiresome to watch. Unhappily, The Show-Off falls into this category. It's a dated 1920s piece that's neither funny nor insightful, and it doesn't even possess the side benefit of telling us anything significant about the period in which it was written.
At the center of this story is a posing, preening, bumptious young man named Aubrey Piper, out to make his way in the world in any way he can. This is the kind of guy who lies as naturally as he breathes, attempting to delude everyone about his job and his salary. When he borrows a friend's car, drives it drunk and without a license, then has an accident, he accuses the traffic cop whose arm he's broken of running into him. Aubrey begins his quest by worming his way into a proper Philadelphia family and eventually marrying one of the daughters, Amy. The other daughter, Clara, is already married, to a wealthy but unloving man who, oddly, is endlessly patient and generous with Aubrey but has no apparent interest in his wife. By the third act, Clara is wistfully saying that maybe it's better to be married to someone who talks incessantly than to someone who never talks at all. This may be playwright George Kelly's attempt to inject a little feeling into his script, but if it is, it comes too late and without sufficient preparation.
The Show-Off could be funny if Aubrey had a certain juicy vitality, a real appetite for success and admiration, but Travis W. Boswell makes him a braying caricature. It's not that the interpretation is too broad — that wouldn't be possible — but it just doesn't feel human. Most of Aubrey's face-offs are with Lori Hansen as Mrs. Fisher, mother of Amy and Clara. This woman is judgmental and casually racist as written, and Hansen plays her as thin-lipped and mean-spirited as Aubrey is expansive. Suzanna Wellens gives us a solid Clara, though there doesn't seem to be much going on inside. Jennifer Anne Forsyth, who plays Amy, is always interesting to watch — but overall, the performances are stifled and uninvolving. No one in this family appears to care very much when the head of the household dies suddenly, and it's beyond imagining that Hansen, Wellens and Forsyth really are mother and daughters. There's nothing approaching any kind of intimacy — irritated or loving — in the script or the acting.
These interpretations may be defensible; perhaps they're what Kelly wanted. Baierlein writes in his program that the playwright eschewed sentimentality and cast "a harsh light on (his characters') shortcomings." But if, as an audience, we're denied any level of emotional involvement, we should still get something to make our evening worthwhile: intellect, exciting language, visual pleasure, a conundrum to solve. With The Show-Off, all we get is a bunch of boring, unpleasant people saying boring, unpleasant things.
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