October 4, 2013

George Kelly was nothing more than a name to me until four months ago, when Connecticut’s Westport Country Playhouse produced “The Show-Off,” the 1924 play for which he is remembered—barely—by students of American theater between the wars. I was expecting a modestly interesting historical exhibit. Instead “The Show-Off” turned out to be a serious comedy of unusual force and emotional complexity. It set me to wondering about Kelly’s other plays, no less than nine of which made it to Broadway between 1922 and 1946. Might any of them be as good?

Now the Mint Theater Company, an Off-Broadway troupe that specializes in exhuming forgotten shows deserving of a second chance, has answered that question by reviving “Philip Goes Forth,” which was last seen on Broadway in 1931. Given the quality of “The Show-Off” and the track record of the Mint, it seemed likely that “Philip Goes Forth,” directed by Jerry Ruiz, would be worth seeing—and sure enough, it’s a gem, mounted with the company’s accustomed skill and resourcefulness.

Like “The Show-Off,” “Philip Goes Forth” gets under way in a deceptively predictable-sounding manner. The scene is a fancy drawing room in a city that is, according to the stage directions, “500 miles from New York.” The characters are Philip ( Bernardo Cubría ), an affable, earnest young gent, and his anxious Aunt Marion ( Christine Toy Johnson ). Philip, it seems, works for his father (Cliff Bemis), a no-nonsense businessman, but confesses to Aunt Marion ambitions of a radically different sort: He longs to move to New York and become a playwright. No, he hasn’t actually written anything yet, but his college friends have assured him that he’s oozing with talent, and the only thing that’s stopping him from putting it to good use is his unsympathetic father, a benighted Babbitt who Just Doesn’t Understand, curtly dismissing Philip’s high-flying dreams as “a lot of damned foolery.”

Were all this not managed with the lightest of touches, you might well suspect Kelly of trading exclusively in clichés. But don’t be fooled, for he has a stack of aces tucked up his sleeve. After the first intermission, Philip “goes forth” to Greenwich Village to seek fame and fortune, holing up in a down-at-the-heel boarding house run by a retired actress ( Kathryn Kates ) and inhabited by a gaggle of variously arty folk, including a full-fledged poetess (Rachel Moulton), a gloomy young composer ( Brian Keith MacDonald ) and yet another would-be playwright (Teddy Bergman). And that’s where the aces start getting played, the first of which is that our hopeful young hero—not to put too fine a point on it—turns out to be utterly devoid of talent.

Sounds like a farce, right? But just as he did in “The Show-Off,” Kelly ups the dramatic ante unexpectedly in the second act, and all at once you realize that you don’t have the slightest idea where “Philip Goes Forth” is headed. This being a well-made three-act play, all of the loose ends get tied up by evening’s end, but the road that leads from here to there is full of twists, and by the time the curtain falls, you’ll have been well and truly surprised, not just once but repeatedly.

Mr. Ruiz has given “Philip Goes Forth” a neat, clean staging, and his cast, as usual with a Mint production, is well chosen and completely at ease with the theatrical manners of a bygone age. Especially pleasing are Ms. Kates, who plays the wised-up landlady with touching disillusion, and Natalie Kuhn, who is magical in the off-the-rack role of Philip’s girlfriend. Ms. Kuhn is one of those rare actors who gives the impression of being lit from within, and whenever she’s on stage, you won’t look elsewhere.

Having raved repeatedly in this space about the Mint’s prestidigitational ability to stuff complicated productions onto the miniature stage of its 100-seat theater without knocking off any corners, I’ll simply say that Steven C. Kemp’s two sets are richly redolent of the flavor of their period, right down to the Le Corbusier settees with which the first-act drawing room is equipped. Likewise Carisa Kelly’s early-’30s costumes, which are no less precisely and persuasively detailed.

If George Kelly wrote two plays as good as “Philip Goes Forth” and “The Show-Off,” it’s a safe bet that the rest of his oeuvre is worth a closer look. I nominate for revival “Craig’s Wife,” Kelly’s third play, which won the 1926 Pulitzer Prize for drama and was filmed three times, the second time with Rosalind Russell in the title role and the third time with Joan Crawford. How about it?