By Toby Zinman
For the Inquirer
They say that clothes make the man. This seems to be literally true in the case of Jack, the central character in The Toughest Boy in Philadelphia, who is actually a transvestite named Florence. Iron Age Theatre, based in Norristown, brings this new play to Philadelphia for Gay Pride Month and for the company's first full-run in the city in ten years.
Andrea Kennedy Hart's tedious script emphasizes all the wrong stuff, spending too much time on long, pompous suffragette speeches and long, pompous psychoanalytic theory about curing "sexual inversion," plus the repeated telling of the myth or Orion, the relevance of which made no sense to me. (In what way is a constellation "untethered"? Quite the opposite, I'd have thought.) We see very little of the gangster or of Jack's rise to fame and power—and the way that would have gratified a woman in those powerless early years of the twentieth century in our hometown.
The best scenes are those with his wise and tolerant grandfather who homeschools Florence in philosophy and astronomy. The worst scenes are those of his mother, a cross-dressing vaudeville star whose final speech, which ends the play, is about love of theater which seems to have nothing to do with anything other than her enjoyment of wearing tuxedos, thus oversimplifying the complex issue at the heart of the play.
The style, as John Doyle directed and designed the show, is an uneasy mixture of music hall exaggeration and realism, with the result that nobody sounds like a person; this undermines our abiltiy to identify and sympathize.
K.O. DelMarcelle plays Jack/Florence and is fine, if too earnest and dour (nothing worse than a humorless cross-dresser.) As the grandfather and the psychoanalyst, Susan Giddings brings a level of professional theatricality that none of the younger actors has (even if she can't remember all her lines).
The rest of the cast –Gina Martino, Michelle Pauls and Colleen Hughes --plays multiple roles. Much of the acting, like much of the dialogue, is trite and stilted.
The Toughest Boy in Philadelphia had a lot going for it: Jack is that figure beloved of drama, the intellectual gangster. Add to that the gender-bending. Add to that, the fact that it's a true story. All of which goes to show us once again, that great material does not necessarily make a great play.
Iron Age Theatre at Luna Theatre 620 S. 8th St. Through June 29. Tickets $20. Information: www.iron-age-theatre.ticketleap.com