A writer writes, they say, but is there any inherent drama in a play about a writer who writes? George Kelly’s 1931 play Philip Goes Forth (currently being revived by Off Broadway’s Mint Theater until Oct. 27) is a work about a writer that’s almost frustratingly one-note. Though Kelly was known for shrewd satires in his career, this represented more of a blip and was met with indifference some 80 years ago. Given Jerry Ruiz’s lethargic, underpowered revival, audience’s minds are unlikely to change.
Philip (appealing newcomer Bernardo Cubria) is a wide-eyed 23-year-old who skirts his father’s (Cliff Bemis) wish for him to go into business, and instead hightails it to the Big Apple to become a playwright, a lifelong dream shared only with his female confidante of many years (Natalie Kuhn) and his beloved Aunt Marion (Christine Toy Johnson). After residing in a boarding house filled with other aspiring scribes and artists, he is taken under the wing of a stage veteran (Kathryn Kates) who soons suspects that Philip may not be the real deal. Naturally, our hero begins to question the wisdom of his career choice.
As one can gather, there is shockingly little tension for this wisp of a tale, and the actors and creators seem at odds over how to present it. Should it be naturalistic drama or show drawing-room period flair? Frustratingly, Ruiz gives us both, which throws the character study aspects out of whack. The actors who lean on period impulses have more luck, especially Carole Healey, who’s an absolute delight as a vamping socialite. You can actually sense pulses rise in the audience when she makes her (too-brief) appearances.
There are hints of deeper meaning in the text, especially given the knowledge that Kelly (who died in 1974) was a famously closeted gay man; Philip could have been an avatar for a young Kelly who takes to the city to escape a stifling home life and find himself. But this production doesn’t pick up on those cues, and instead teeters in a rather dull middle ground. To add insult to injury, the production’s exit music is Jay Z and Alicia Keys’ ”Empire State of Mind,” a tune that takes about four minutes to convey what this best-left-on-the-shelf play attempts in two lackluster hours. C