Florence becomes Jack - and famous

In a scene from "The Toughest Boy in Philadelphia," Jack/Florence (K.O. DelMarcelle) presents flowers to sweetheart Lettie (Gina Martino).
In a scene from "The Toughest Boy in Philadelphia," Jack/Florence (K.O. DelMarcelle) presents flowers to sweetheart Lettie (Gina Martino). (JOHN DOYLE)
Posted: June 17, 2014

They say clothes make the man. This seems literally to have been true in the case of Jack, the central character in The Toughest Boy in Philadelphia, based on the true story of the 1920s gangster "Whistling Jack" McConnell, who was actually a transvestite named Florence Gray. Iron Age Theatre of Norristown brings this new play to Philadelphia for Gay Pride Month and for the company's first full run in the city in 10 years.

Andrea Kennedy Hart's tedious script emphasizes the wrong stuff - long, pompous suffragette speeches and long, pompous psychoanalytic theory about curing "sexual inversion," plus the repeated telling of the myth of Orion, the relevance of which eluded me. We see very little of Jack's rise to fame and power, or of the way it would have gratified a woman in those powerless early years of the 20th century in our hometown.

The best scenes are those with the wise, tolerant grandfather who homeschools Florence in philosophy and astronomy. The worst are those with her mother, a cross-dressing vaudeville star whose final speech is about her love of theater, which seems to be based on her enjoyment of wearing tuxedos, oversimplifying the complex issue at the play's heart.

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 ability to identify and sympathize.

K.O. DelMarcelle plays Jack/Florence and is fine, if a bit earnest and dour (nothing worse than a humorless cross-dresser.) As the grandfather and the psychoanalyst, Susan Giddings brings a level of professional theatricality none of the younger actors has (even if she can't remember all of her lines).

The rest of the all-female cast - Gina Martino, Michelle Pauls, and Colleen Hughes - play 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 true. All of which goes to show that great material does not necessarily make a great play.


THEATER REVIEW

The Toughest Boy in Philadelphia

Presented by Iron Age Theatre Company at the Luna Theater, 620 S. Eighth St., through June 29. Tickets: $20. Information: www.ironagetheatre.org.

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