Review: You Can’t Take It With You
By Perry Tannenbaum
Picking up our tickets for You Can’t Take It With You in the Overcash lobby outside Halton Theater, I was asked how many times I had seen this comedy by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart before. Reflexively, I answered four or five times – discovering, to my surprise, that I was replying without a groan. My later researches proved my estimate to be correct, for I have now seen local productions on at least five occasions dating back to 1990, including presentations by Charlotte Shakespeare, Old Courthouse Theatre (1991), and two at Theatre Charlotte (2001 and 2016), along with the current Central Piedmont Theatre effort. Over the years, I’ve gradually warmed to the script, perhaps because it’s better-respected now than when the 1937 Pulitzer Prize winner was turned into a star-studded screwball extravaganza in the 1938 Oscar-winning film.
Each time I’ve beaten back my resistance to reviewing You Can’t Take It on recent occasions, I’ve found myself taking away something new. The last time I saw the comedy, just days after the 2016 election, I found myself imagining how in tune with public sentiment the Kaufman-Hart concoction must have seemed when it first premiered – after the 1936 election. Hardly shocked or even surprised anymore by the cavalcade of eccentricity in the Sycamore family and their outré circle, I found myself newly fascinated by patriarch Martin Vanderhof’s anti-government stance and the playwrights’ decidedly anti-Wall Street sentiments. Of course, I had no idea at that time how much I could come to loathe a President who boasted about not paying his income taxes.
Nearly five years later, the similarities – and dissimilarities – between Martin and The Donald have popped into sharper focus, creating a provocative tension. What struck me most forcefully this time around was how much You Can’t Take It With You is about the classic clash of New York values, the free-thinking Bohemian chaos at the Vanderhof home, around the corner from Columbia University, and the stuffy, moneyed callousness of Wall Street, the planet’s financial capital, still wobbling after the crash. Maybe the other thing that struck me with new force was also a result of the Trump Effect. This play is absolutely crawling with Russian influences: emigres, ballet, socialism, Stalinism, Trotskyism, and blintzes. No wonder at all why the place gets raided by G-Men.
Kaufman and Hart would have no doubt delighted in Jennifer O’Kelly’s vast set design, for they described this expanse as an “every-man-for-himself room,” where every member of the household has the freedom – and space – to do whatever he or she pleases. “For here,” they added, “meals are eaten, plays are written, snakes collected, ballet steps practiced, xylophones played, printing presses operated – if there were room enough there would probably be ice skating.” With admirable restraint, there is no Zamboni in sight under Paula Baldwin’s deft direction, and the wide vista of the O’Kelly’s set encourages players to move quickly to answer the front door at stage left, to step lively in reaching centerstage, and to speak loudly so that all might hear. Baldwin was also spied at the back of Halton Theater on a couple of occasions, perhaps after hovering near the soundboard, for the sound from body mics onstage was exceptionally problem-free. Sound design by Ismail Out, including cuts of Johnny Mercer’s “Goody Goody” from 1936, was also on-target.
The plot revolves around the possible nuptials between Alice Sycamore, Martin’s granddaughter, and her Wall Street boss, Tony Kirby. As Alice sees it, the multitudinous eccentricities of the Vanderhof household are an insuperable barrier between her and the ultra-respectable Kirbys. Obviously, Alice is conflicted about her family, loving them all while seeing them with the clarity of the only household member in daily contact with the outside world. Tony, as it turns out, is no less attuned to the shortcomings of his own family, so he pushes for a meeting with Alice’s family and then for the inevitably explosive rendezvous between his folks and hers. Did we mention that Alice’s dad, Paul, fashions fireworks with his faithful assistant, Mr. De Pinna? No, because all of those chemical reactions happen down in the cellar, out of view.
Having to move so quickly across O’Kelly’s arena seems to endow all the residents of the Vanderhof home with an enthusiastic complacency, so engrossed are they all in their eccentricities. Pam Coble Newcomer is the restless artist of the family as Martin’s daughter, Penny Sycamore, working on a couple of her 11 unfinished playscripts as we watch, until she decides it’s time to resume work on painting a portrait of Mr. De Pinna posing in a Grecian tunic that she abandoned years ago. Abigail Adams is Penny’s eldest daughter, Essie, the perennial ballet student who also makes candies, and Braden Asbury is her husband, who mostly splits his time between the xylophone and the printing press in his nook. He also likes to make masks and serves as Essie’s candy seller and the family pamphleteer. Busy fella. So you’ll notice that Kaufman and Hart enjoy piling multiple enthusiasms on their characters.
Contrasts can be extreme, sometimes with a zany logic. As Boris Kolenkhov, Essie’s ballet teacher, John Sexton can beat a taskmaster’s cane on the floor in perpetual frustration, since Essie shows no promise whatsoever, and then, at the most inopportune moment, reveal his zest for wrestling. It’s a lot for the Kirbys to digest all at once, but other weirdos like Mr. De Pinna are likely to show up on the Vanderhof doorstep and never leave. Weirdest of these may be Corlis Hayes as Gay Wellington, a flamboyant actress who would steal every scene if she weren’t spending so much time passed out on the settee from excess drink. Of course, cameos from those government raiders and an overnight stay in jail didn’t improve the Kirbys’ first impressions of Alice’s family. Nor do the fireworks down in the cellar remain inert. As the elder Kirbys, Rick Taylor and Pamela Thorson were as starchy as can be, but Thorson was especially regal in taking affront.
In the face of such humiliating catastrophe, Alice wished to exile herself to the Adirondacks, but Charlie Grass managed even here not to be overly annoying in her shame and mortification as the one “normal” member of her family. Love and practicality are nicely mixed in this Alice. Serene and optimistic as ever, Martin, Penny, and Paul are able to laugh off the misadventures of the previous night. Newcomer as Penny, Jeremy Cartee as Paul, and Dennis Delamar as Martin became especially endearing from this moment forward, maintaining their equanimity after this buffeting of adversity. Galumphing and awkward in the early going, in and out of his mad scientist coveralls, Cartee showed some touching solicitude toward the wife and daughter when crisis struck. Delamar, in his second go-round as Martin, has thoroughly mastered his dignity and glow, aided by Emily McCurdy’s costume design and James Duke’s lighting.
Whether or not Baldwin was looking for a James Stewart type in replicating the onscreen chemistry between Alice and Tony (judge for yourself when you see Grass’s hair), Timothy Hager brings some of the same height and charming gawkiness to the role. Although O’Kelly does her best to clutter up her set, there is never the sense that Tony is slumming because the space is so expansive. That spaciousness also tends to dilute whatever humble, homespun quality you might have associated with Vanderhof and his clan in past viewings.
With Baldwin’s staging, you’ll likely find that the wide-open space enhances Delamar’s eloquence when he delivers Martin’s signature monologue in the final act. If you can tear your eyes away from Delamar, you’ll notice that Newcomer has been deployed far to stage right, leaning forward on the sofa in rapt attention, beaming and proud of her daddy. Most other family members have been spread out around a stage that has more than a couple of times been teeming with tumult. All eyes are Grandpa, all the family are respectfully still, radiating pride and content. It gives a special moment an extra aura.