by Michael Bowen
It's clear why the central message of this screwball comedy would resonate with Depression audiences: When times are hard, the idea that material possessions don't matter can be encouraging. George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart crafted their play by sketching a family full of wacky characters, then inserting such obstacles to the inevitable happy ending as differences in social class and the intrusiveness of government. Nearly all the characters follow their whims, caring not a whit for conventions or conformity. In 1937, folks needed reminding that silliness could still be acceptable.
Today, in the age of American affluenza, the message that You Can't Take It With You after you die is, if anything, even more pertinent. In the figure of the Wall Street stockbroker Mr. Kirby (who is obsessive about his work and has stomach troubles), the two playwrights might as well be lampooning the cell-phone-toting, Land-Rover-driving, corporate-ladder-climbing crowd of today. Kirby's polar opposite in the play, Grandpa Martin Vanderhof (Homer C. Mason, in a marvelous, grumpy, hilarious performance) checked out of the rat race 35 years ago, lives for the moments when friends and relatives release their inner fools and opens his home to all wanderers of the night. Characteristically, he doesn't crow about how generous he is.
The Sycamore family and their assorted hangers-on live in a fantasy land where they can afford to be indifferent to details. This is the kind of household where, if you ask what time it is, someone will volunteer that "a couple of hours ago, I think it was about five o'clock." Letters get left in the icebox. External reality doesn't penetrate very deeply into Mrs. Sycamore's happy-go-lucky existence. For example, at one point, government officials storm the house, snooping out supposed crimes. Informed that they are agents from the Department of Justice, she exclaims, "Oh, no! J-Men!"
If your lips tend to be primly pursed, screwball lines like that won't tickle your non-existent funnybone. But in an era when professional stage productions nearly all have single sets and small casts, it's refreshing to see a large ensemble roll up their sleeves and revel in some delicious character parts. Plays with 19 in the cast are usually relegated to college and community theaters nowadays. You Can't Take It With You, nonetheless, seems especially suited to the kind of production it can receive at a theater like the Civic; Kaufman and Hart have written into their play a number of tributes to amateur art. There are painters, playwrights, dancers, actors, tinkerers and chefs in this household -- none very good at what they do, but no matter. The same spirit of joining, enjoying and even risking pratfalls permeates community theaters everywhere. It's only fitting that You Can't Take It be taken to heart by the kind of unself-conscious amateurs it depicts.
David Denman Smith directs his cast creatively, especially during two chaotic episodes in the second act when unexpected callers show up at the Vanderhofs' door. At least eight members of the cast deserve special mention. Yolanda Everette-Neufville plays Rheba, the family's black maid, as a little sassy and more than a little ahead of these crazy white folks. (Unfortunately, the play shows its age in the way it perpetuates Stepin Fetchit stereotypes in the character of Rheba's boyfriend Donald, played by Rev. Happy Watkins.) Buddy Todd contributes understated humor well, whether plunking away at his xylophone or caring for the family's pet snakes. Andrea Oess gets the futility of her character Essie's dancing aspirations just right; there's unspoken humor in the way she gauges a leap over a couch -- and then decides simply to step on it. As her dance instructor, Boris Kalenkhov, Troy Nickerson dispenses dark Russian opinions with flamboyance; visualize a huggable dancing bear in a silk vest and flouncy sleeves.
As Tony Kirby, Robb Padgett has more panache than did Jimmy Stewart in the 1938 Frank Capra movie. From his first appearance in a tuxedo to his skillful playing of the flirtatious love scenes, he handles the part of the ingenue's love interest adeptly. That ingenue (Alice Sycamore, the only "normal" one in the family) is presented by Tanya Ihnen with elegance and beauty. The script hampers her by getting too syrupy at the end of Act One, when Alice is supposed to gaze upon one of her father's beautiful creations and swoon with love, but Ihnen is convincing in the moment. She also persuasively projects Alice's determination in standing up for her own view of what a marriage should be.
But the chief treasures of this show are Alba Jeanne MacConnell as the whimsical mother, Penny Sycamore, and Mason as the crotchety but vibrant grandfather. Whether pecking away at outlandish plays on the typewriter or donning a beret to paint a ridiculous portrait, MacConnell scurries about the stage, comically impervious to others' desires. Slightly dotty, full of childlike enthusiasm, she delivered one-liners that elicited gales of laughter. Mason, in contrast, growls at the world's injustice as he labors in and out of his favorite chair, then turns and grins whenever the spectacle of someone making a fool of herself is in the offing. He acts as the play's conscience, never more effectively than in a final standoff with the arrogance of Mr. Kirby.
You can't exactly bottle such good performances and take them with you, but you can hold them in your memory with pleasure for years.