DAISY MAYME, by George Kelly. William Putch; scenery by John Kavelin; costumes by Joan Markert; lighting by Martin Aronstein.
With Jean Stapleton, Rex Robbins, Polly Rowles, Margaret Hill Ritter, Kristen Lowman, Pamela Putch, Doug Robinson and Wil Love.
At the Eisenhower Theater through December 15.
Well it's back to the 1920s again at the Kennedy Center, but with a new wrinkle. These "Daisy Mayme" people are not in show business, not fabulously rich, not devilishly witty. They're just a family of stuffy middle-class folks from North Philadelphia.
Cliff Mettinger is a bachelor builder with some fine new suburban houses to sell for $12,000 apiece (there was a good deal of ooh-ing and aah-ing when this figure was announced at last night's opening). He has never married, first out of loyalty to his aged mother, and then out of loyalty to his widowed sister. But now both are dead, and his two other sisters, whom he has helped out from time to time, are anxious not to see his largesse directed elsewhere.
Enter Daisy Mayme Plunkett, a brassy lady from Harrisburg who runs a dry goods and notions store ("mostly notions," she says), dyes her hair reddish orange and laughs like a horse.
Her slogan is "Give me liberty or give me laughs, and you can have the liberty." Naturally, Cliff's covetious sisters are terrified that he may be ripe for the plunking.
There you have the premise of "Daisy Mayme," a 1926 comedy that would have absolutely no business being on the stage of the Eisenhower Theater in 1979 if it were not for the presence of Jean Stapleton in the title role -- and has very little business being there with Jean Stapleton.
This never-more-than-pleasant production originated at the Totem Pole Playhouse as a family enterprise. William Putch, the director, is Stapleton's husband. Their daughter Pamela plays a minor part. The show is now midway through a four-month tour that will take it to 10 cities, with Washington accorded the doubtful honor of being -- by far -- the longest stop on the tour.
George Kelly, who wrote "Daisy Mayme," was not only Grace's uncle but a low-keyed, naturalistic playwright who cared about everyday people and mundane problems at a time when the theater, on the whole, didn't. His characters worried about things like who was going to fix dinner and whether the piano should be opened only a month after a death in the family.
And some of these gentle matters are played with real charm here, especially when a fine actress named Polly Rowles is on stage. As Cliff's ever-suspicious sister Ruth, Rowles has a wonderful way of shifting her jowls and arching her eyebrows at each new effrontery committed by the low-life lady who has burst into her family.
An equally delightful, if rather broad performance is rendered by Wil Love as a 90-year-old neighbor who spends his days watering the lawn and goes to bed regularly 8 p.m. He counsels Cliff to get married, noting that "one woman's as good as another once you get used to her. I've had three of them, and I'd have another if my legs'd carry me far enough to find her."
When Rowles and Love aren't around, though, most of the laughter in "Daisy Mayme" comes from the stage rather than the audience.
Love, beneath all his makeup, looks like a man with a few decades to go yet before he hits 90. If so, he's probably the only under-aged actor in the cast. Otherwise, Kelly's characters seem mysteriously to have been granted an extra five to 15 years of longevity apiece.
Daisy Mayme herself, for instance, is 39 -- according to the author (usually a reliable source on such matters). But if Stapleton had made this interesting woman come alive, who would have been counting? As it is, once we get beyond her basic boisterousness, she gives a curiously nondescript and uninvolving performance.
For this, Edith should never have left the Bunker.