You shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. Turns out, though, you can’t help but draw conclusions about Iron Age Theater’s latest show based on its program, especially when two-thirds of the program is a sixteen-page “Dramaturgical Guide.” This consists of a handful of essays that have been lifted whole cloth from various web sites (I’m serious: they didn’t even bother to put them all in the same font!) and that have little to no connection to each other, plus a less-than-helpful glossary, also copied-and-pasted, that defines obscure terms such as “baloney” (“nonsense”), “hood” (“hoodlum), and “speakeasy” (“a bar selling illeagal liquor”—and it turns out this typo is straight from the original web site). Also, the pages are out of order and one is flipped upside-down.
I wish I could say this was a thematic choice. Unfortunately, while THE TOUGHEST BOY IN PHILADELPHIA has something important to say, the material is arranged so carelessly that I’ll be damned if I can tell you what it is. We open with an emcee (Michelle Pauls), a broadly-played vaudevillian “male impersonator” with an oversized, stagey persona. Her scenes alternate with the story of Jack / Florence (K.O. DelMarcelle), a real Philadelphian who successfully lived as a man for eight years in the 1910s and 1920s. This could have been a thought-provoking contrast, except the show muddles the two extremes together, so that for instance the psychologically realistic Jack / Florence scenes veer into slapstick territory with no warning and then lurch back to heart-wrenching.
Worse, there are no stakes for the characters. To this day, the transgression of gender boundaries is fraught with personal risks, but we don’t get a sense of that at all. What should be a story about the struggle to define oneself in spite of massive opposition instead comes across as some kind of direct-to-video sequel to An American Tail.
The all-female cast is game, and each actor has moments of brilliance that shine through in spite of the confusion. DelMarcelle as Jack / Florence has more than enough verve to carry a show, and Susan Giddings gives us two finely-wrought performances. Michelle Pauls keeps the play moving with a couple of lively song-and-dance interludes, but even they fade away as the show loses focus. Gina Martino isn’t given much to do as Jack’s girl Lettie, but still manages to rise above the material. And Colleen Hughes shows great range, playing a pair of well-differentiated gangsters and but also nailing a fiery speech as Lettie’s suffragette boss. But their male characters are often unconvincing, and so again when the play strives to be at its most realistic, we wind up with a burlesque.
At its heart, this show can’t decide what it wants to be. This is a huuuuge problem because our main character knows exactly who he wants to be: the rough-and-tumble ladies man that everybody calls Whistling Jack. The show needs more of that laser-sharp certainty, because without it, all we’re left with is a confused jumble. [Luna Theater, 620 S Eighth Street] June 12-29, 2014; ironagetheatre.org.