New York City Theater
"You Can’t Take It With You"
“The world’s not crazy,” says Grandpa. “It’s the people in it.” That line from “You Can’t Take It With You” is probably familiar to anyone who ever saw or participated in their high school drama club’s production of the popular comedy. But Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman’s work about a non-conforming family, which won a Pulitzer Prize as well as a Best Picture Oscar when it was filmed, has never seemed so attractively sane as it does in its current starry outing. (Maybe it’s because the current world seems more insane than it’s ever been.)
As directed by Scott Ellis, the play orbits beyond zany comedy into the realm of the touching and true. Caricature alone won’t cut the mustard and there’s more to the Sycamore family, its friends and servants, than kooks. Just below the surface is a love story of dimension and genuine emotion.
Yes, the three-act evening is still howlingly funny. The clan’s mom, Penelope (the forever ditsy Kristine Nielsen), has been writing unproducable plays for years; Dad Paul and Mr. DePinna (Mark-Linn Baker and Patrick Kerr, both excellent) experiment with fireworks; sis (the enchanting Annaleigh Ashford) married to the amateur printer Ed (an eager Will Brill) takes ballet lessons from a bug-eyed teacher (the deliriously loony Reg Rogers) whose assessment of his pupil is, “She stinks.”
Let’s not forget the drunken actress who, as embodied by Julie Halston (a New York darling), has the funniest stairs climb since Charles Busch. Or the Russian countess (Elizabeth Ashley, no less), who works at Child’s and is a whiz on blintzes. Mix in an IRS agent, G-men, two seen-it-all servants, a snooty, rich couple, two kittens and a caged snake and you have the ingredients for a soufflé that rises and rises.
Presiding over all is Grandpa Martin Vanderhof, a man who, one day, years ago, just gave up going to his office in favor of spending the rest of his life having fun. Portrayed by the formidable James Earl Jones, Grandpa adds gravitas and tenderness to an evening that could, in the wrong hands, fly off into the ether.
But Grandpa isn’t the only bit of heartfelt tenderness. The romance between Alice, the one seemingly sane family member, and Tony, her rich, empathetic boyfriend, are played exquisitely by Rose Byrne and Fran Kranz. For all the play’s zaniness, you actually feel for these characters who, in these actors’ hands, turn the evening into more than a sock-it-to-‘em farce.
Even David Rockwell’s tchotchke-laden set, Donald Holder’s warm lighting, Jane Greenwood’s period costumes and Jon Weston’s jaunty sound deign fit the general air of nostalgia, of worlds lost. “We’ve been so happy,” says Penelope. “I know,” answers Paul. “But maybe that’s not enough.”
But it is. It truly is.
--David A. Rosenberg
October 6, 2014