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A CurtainUp Book Review
Three Plays by George Kelly
The Torch-Bearer, The Show-Off and Craig's Wife

Ask any student of the American theater to name some mainstream playwrights of the twenties and the answer is likely to include Philip Barry, S. N. Berman and Maxwell Anderson. Few lists will include George Kelly. As William B. Lynch explains in his excellent introductory chapter to this anthology "of all the major playwrights of his generation Kelly's name provokes the least recognition." Part of this was due to his conservative nature and the fact that he shied from publicity as well as having too much to do with other theater people.

While Kelly's name may not ring a bell, at least one of the three titles Craig's Wife in this collection probably does. After all, this story of a compulsively tidy and controlling housewife won a Pulitzer Prize for 1925-26 and was translated to the silver screen three times. The 1950 version, renamed Harriet Craig is still a favorite golden oldie video renter, especially for Joan Crawford fans. Crawford's unforgettably over-the-top portrait of the bitchy neurotic made Mrs. Craig and Harriet Craig into widely comprehended allusions for anyone inclined to be a neat-and-clean fanatic.

Actually, the Pulitzer was considered a sure thing for The Show-Off, which preceeded Craig's Wife by two years and ran on Broadway for 567 performance. Initially a vaudeville sketch, its portrait of Aubrey Piper, the title character, and the whole comic braggadocio of American business, touched a universal chord. The fusion of the braggart who's humbled and the likeable incompetent who makes good has won over audiences in many subsequent productions. Louis John Bartels the original Aubrey became so identified with the part that all other roles he undertook paled by comparison.

Today Kelly's plays -- at least these three which represent his best work -- belong to the era of the Golden Age of American Theatre when audiences responded with delight to see their lives put on stage. As Wendy Wasserstein explains in her foreword to this book, "George Kelly's plays are not edgy. They do not confront an audience with the author's riveting rage. . . There is nothing politically correct or incorrect about them." As reading them proves, however, they are well-crafted and built on the foundation stone of character. Harriet Craig and Audrey Piper -- one despicable one comic butt-hero -- are characters from another time but of timeless interest. So is Mrs. Pampanelli and young Mr. and Mrs. Ritter of The Torch-Bearers which is of special interest as I'm writing this.

Besides being the play in which George Kelly's niece Grace, better known as the late Princess Grace of Monaco, made her acting debut, The Torch-Bearers is the next production of the Drama Dept, one of the better known small companies to have made the New York theater scene. Presented in the company's modest space in Greenwich Village and for a very limited run, this revival will feature a stellar cast. Marian Seldes seems ideally suited to the role of the overbearing Mrs. Pampanelli as is Faith Prince as the young Mrs. Ritter whose head is quite turned by her community theater success.

Playwright Kelly gave very specific directions about the color scheme for the set -- silver-green furniture and piano with tones of orchid and green blended into walls and ceilings. I can't wait to report back to you on how Dylan Baker, a fine actor who here tries his hand at directing, decides to handle these and other deliberately garish touches.

by George Kelly
Published by Limelight Editions
Foreword by Wendy Wasserstein
Biographical and critical essays by William J. Lynch
softcover 397 pages
To buy on line go here
If you don't feel like waiting for the next late night re-run of Joan Crawford as Harriet Craig, check it out here

Reviewed by Elyse Sommer

©Copyright 1999, Elyse Sommer, CurtainUp.
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