Christopher Hitchens once quipped, “everybody does have a book in them, but in most cases that’s where it should stay.” This sentiment is the thrust of George Kelly’s 1931 comedy Philip Goes Forth, in which the eponymous Philip (Bernardo Cubría), a young man fueled by vanity and a desire to disprove his detractors, has decided to forsake a career in the family business in favor of playwriting. His father’s fury at this plan only convinces Philip of its merits, and despite attempts by his kindly aunt Mrs. Randolph (Christine Toy Johnson) to deflate his swollen ego, Philip decamps to New York. The big city and its bohemian denizens challenge Philip’s ideas of artistic pursuit. Though initially convinced that his inclination towards happy endings is a mark of his audacity, Philip finds that real courage comes from exploiting life’s unhappier moments for the sake of art.
For Kelly, Philip Goes Forth was part of an ongoing series of increasingly condemnatory satires. At 82 years old, the play has lost little bite. Early on, Phillip brags, “standing right here at this window, I could see enough dramas in the next five minutes to fill a library,” shortly before he declares that he has to move to New York, “the only place that a person can go to do this kind of thing.” A stroll through some of Brooklyn’s more recently gentrified neighborhoods is evidence enough that this brand of deluded youth, more interested in talking about making art than actually making it, is still very much with us. Philip is more of an idea of this kind of young man than a fully realized character, a conceited centerpiece for a colorful merry-go-round of artistic eccentrics. For Philip Goes Forth, the life of the play is in its supporting cast.
The highlight of this supporting cast is undoubtedly Carole Healey as Mrs. Oliver, a highly chic family friend who forcefully encourages Philip’s playwriting. The operatic trill of Healey’s delivery (which evokes the Marx Brothers foil Margaret Dumont and her giddy energy) so thoroughly improved the first act that her mere entrance in the third drew unanimous applause. Rachel Moulton is endearing as Mrs. Krail, a spacey young poetess who exhibits a bubbly enthusiasm for almost everything. The rest of the cast does a decent job with the only truly weakness being Johnson, whose attempt at sweet maternal concern feels so disarmingly false that she nearly sinks the entire first act.
The Mint Theater Company has the admirable goal of resurrecting “worthy but neglected” plays and Philip Goes Forth certainly fits the bill. George Kelly’s later work has been particularly neglected—the severity of his last plays proved so unpopular with audiences that two of them were never published—and while there is certainly some grim dabbling, this play is mostly airy and rather forgiving of its protagonists. It even winks at the audience with an ending that a pre-disillusionment Philip could have penned.