Among George Kelly's more memorable inventions are two plays. One is "The Torch-Bearers," a wickedly funny farce depicting backstage pandemonium among amateur thespians written long before Michael Frayn's "Noises Off" was even a glimmer in his eye. The other is "The Show-Off," a sly domestic comedy with a couple of vivid acting roles and lots of atmosphere a la Kaufman and Hart's "You Can't Take It With You."
It would, in fact, be great fun to put the two plays in rotating repertory on the same meticulously reproduced Philadelphia front parlor set that Cliff Faulkner has created for "The Show-Off" at the Old Globe. You wouldn't have to move a stick of that seasoned old furniture or change a door.
"Show-Off," which opened Thursday, isn't in quite the same league as the Kaufman and Hart, but it's deceptively more than the family squabble it purports to be. And when you have Sada Thompson presiding over it like the Queen of Hearts in "Alice in Wonderland," you have it made.
Jack O'Brien has directed this edition of Kelly's 1924 comedy with a flair for the period and a real nose for its innocent undercurrents. The play is set in a pre-Depression time when America could make small talk with impunity and have it occupy entire evenings. Most of that talk belongs here to Mrs. Fisher (Thompson), the matriarch in monocratic control of this household, and much of it is devoted to berating the man her younger daughter Amy (Jennifer Van Dyck) is determined to marry.
He is Aubrey Piper, the show-off of the title, congenitally incapable of speaking the truth if a self-aggrandizing lie can be handily substituted. As played by Don Sparks, this low-salaried railway clerk, with a mouth like a locomotive, is a dandy and a buffoon, self-centered and self-deluded, with an unquenchable laugh that grates on everyone's nerves but the blinded, bedazzled Amy's.
All others in the family see through him, though not all are as exercised over him as Mrs. Fisher.
Mr . Fisher (Mitchell Edmonds), who doesn't have much to say, resents Aubrey's habit of slapping him on the back. Son Joe (Philip Charles Sneed), a concentrated inventor and tinkerer, is only peripherally bothered by the foolishness and very forgiving. Older daughter Clara (Lynne Griffin), locked in a loveless marriage to well-to-do businessman Frank Hyland (William Anton), even grows envious of the love between this silly man and her kid sister.
On the other hand, none would trust Aubrey very far, especially not after he marries Amy and the gap between his means and his self-importance takes on the proportions of the Grand Canyon.
Aubrey thinks nothing of hitting wealthy brother-in-law Frank for the rent or of borrowing a car he has no license to drive and crashing it. But when his arrogance helps Joe double his advance on a patent, this braggadocio proves more useful than expected.
This tips the balance of power in the Fisher household in interesting ways at play's end. Kelly leaves it to us to imagine the sequel, but before we get there, developments lend a richness to "The Show-Off" that makes it more than just a crowd-pleaser.
Peter Maradudin's lighting and Robert Wojewodski's elegant costumes complete the context. Van Dyck makes a touching transition from amorous girl to tortured woman, and Griffin manages a Clara who is lonely, not bitter.
But Thompson is the fulcrum of the production, the calibrated presence around which everything revolves. There is not a missed bit of timing, false reaction, wrong note or wasted move in that performance. She has a chokehold on the play that her imperious, overbearing and yet vulnerable ways keep in her thrall.
Sparks, a top banana in his own right, is almost subdued by comparison. But his Aubrey is sufficiently irritating and self-possessed to make all aspects of the character believable--including Amy's fondness. It takes skill to play a gentle braggart and emerge unscathed. The balance of the company offers fine support.
Kelly's insights in "The Show-Off" are modest, but they probe a mother lode of unpredictability, offering rich rewards in the skewed relationship between this magisterial mother-in-law and the profligate nemesis who has insinuated himself into the house against her better judgment but may stay there to amaze her after all.
"The Show-Off," Old Globe Theatre, Simon Edison Centre for the Performing Arts, Balboa Park, San Diego. Tuesdays-Sundays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays-Sundays, 2 p.m. Ends Oct. 20. $21-$28.50; (619) 239-2255. Running time: 2 hours, 40 minutes.