Thursday, November 26, 2015


By Toby Zinman



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:

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About this blog

Toby Zinman's night job since 2006 is theater critic for the Inquirer where she reviews New York and London as well as Philadelphia. Her day job: Prize-winning prof at UArts, author of five books about modern and contemporary drama, and doer of scholarly deeds (winner of five NEH grants, Fulbright lecturer at Tel Aviv University, visiting professor in China). She was recently named by American Theatre magazine "one of the twelve most influential critics in America."

Wendy Rosenfield has written freelance features and theater reviews for The Inquirer since 2006. She was theater critic for the Philadelphia Weekly from 1995 to 2001, after which she enjoyed a five-year baby-raising sabbatical. She serves on the board of the American Theatre Critics Association, was a participant in the Bennington Writer's Workshop, a 2008 NEA/USC Fellow in Theater and Musical Theater, and twice was guest critic for the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival's Region II National Critics Institute. She received her B.A. from Bennington College and her M.L.A. from the University of Pennsylvania. She also is a fiction writer, was proofreader to a swami, publications editor for the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, and spends all her free time working out and driving people places. Follow her on Twitter @WendyRosenfield.

Jim Rutter has reviewed theater for The Inquirer since September, 2011. Since 2006, he covered dance, theater and opera for the Broad Street Review, and has also written for many suburban newspapers, including The Main Line Times. In 2009, the National Endowment for the Arts awarded him a Fellowship in Arts Journalism. Thames & Hudson released his updated and revised version of Ballet and Modern Dance in June, 2012. From 1998 to 2005, he taught philosophy and logic at Drexel, and then Widener University. He also coaches Olympic Weightlifting for Liberty Barbell, and has competed at the national level in that sport since 2001.

Merilyn Jackson regularly writes on dance for The Inquirer and other publications. She specializes in the arts, literature, food, travel, and Eastern European culture and politics. In 2001, she was dance critic in residence at the Festival of Contemporary Dance in Bytom, Poland; in 2005, she received an NEA Critics’ Fellowship to Duke University’s Institute for Dance Criticism. She likes to say that dance was her first love but that when she discovered writing she began to cheat on dance. Now that she writes about dance, she’s made an honest woman of herself, although she also writes poetry.

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