Act of Fraud: A self-aggrandizing braggart vies for a family’s good graces.
Act of Fraud: A self-aggrandizing braggart vies for a family’s good graces.

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There’s a not-too-gentle truth about two competing strains of American character running through George Kelly’s 1924 comedy The Show-Off, though you’ll be hard-pressed to tease it out of Stephen Jarrett’s tone-deaf mounting for American Century Theater.

Kelly just missed landing a Pulitzer for this tale of a blowhard railway clerk and the simpleton he bamboozles into marriage despite her family’s—really, her mother’s—objections. An incident-crammed tale of the young and poor (the play’s subtitle is “A Transcript of Life in Three Acts”), The Show-Off taps into social currents that have resonated strongly enough through the years to inspire five Broadway revivals and three films. Alas, no play is so solid it can’t be undone by a sufficiently misguided production.

Start with the title character: Aubrey Piper (David Gram) is the all-American success story writ premature—he’s convinced he’ll get ahead if he can just persuade everyone he’s already leading the pack, so he pops a carnation in his lapel, a toupée atop his bald spot, and a self-aggrandizing lie into every conversation. To hear him tell it, he’s the head of the railway department in which he’s clerking for $32.50 a week, and when he crashes a friend’s car, his chief concern is that the local newspapers get his name right. For the part to work, the character must be at least somewhat appealing—you have to believe his sweetheart (a properly lovestruck Erin E. McGuff) would find him charming, and that someone would loan him a car—but Gram makes Piper little more than an abrasive annoyance, bursting through doorways and braying as if he’s just downed a case of Red Bull.

Resisting him is all-American traditionalism writ small-minded, in the person of his incipient mother-in-law (Lee Mikeska Gardner). This nosy chatterbox couples vinegary aphorisms (“everybody will have trouble if they live long enough”) with casual snark about dagos, Jews, and hunkies, and is as blind to her own failings as she is finely attuned to everyone else’s—a potential goldmine of clueless comedy were she not being played almost entirely for empathy.

Secondary players range from adequate (Jenna Berk as an unhappily married relation) to considerably less than that in a production that’s as unable to wrest pathos from a major character’s death as it is to coax even a titter from the exchange, “The name’s spelled Pepper in my paper.” “Well, it was Piper in our paper.”

Granted, that’s less than deathless prose, but assuming the point is to show off The Show-Off to its best advantage, a wise director might have spent more time making it work and less creating a recorded door-slam for an offstage door that sounds more unconvincing with every slam.