There Was Laughter at the Back of the Theater

The home of Martin Vanderhof (James Earl Jones), which is populated by a band of amiable loons, resembles more a hippie commune than a typical ‘thirties household.  Martin’s daughter, Penelope Sycamore (Kristine Nielsen), is a prolific playwright who began her career because a typewriter was accidentally delivered to her doorstep eight years ago.  Her husband, Paul (Mark Linn-Baker), is a fireworks manufacturer who uses their basement to test his creations.  Essie Carmichael (Annaleigh Ashford), their daughter, spends her time training to become a ballerina—she is terrible—and her husband Ed (Will Brill) is a xylophone player and amateur printer.  When discussing her engagement, Essie says, “He came to dinner once and just stayed.”

The odd woman out here is Alice Sycamore (Rose Byrne), daughter of Penelope and Paul, a comparatively normal office girl who has fallen in love with Tony Kirby (Fran Kranz), Vice President of Kirby and Co. and son of its president, Anthony P. Kirby (Byron Jennings).  Anthony and his wife Miriam (Johanna Day) are stiff, conservative, and dreadfully unhappy—precisely the sort of repressed squares you want to see walking into this circus.

George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart wrote You Can’t Take It with You in 1936, and it certainly shows its age.  This is the kind of broad but old-fashioned comedy where a sex joke need only include the word “sex” and manic humor is heaped on to make the production feel like a genuine event.  Still, where the 1938 film version starring Jimmy Stewart has faded into nothing more than a two-hour time capsule, a live rendering does have its charms.  Paul’s fireworks, for starters, are quite exciting, especially when you consider that they are being set off in a space as prone to fires as a theater—it was fancy special effects, after all, that burned down the original Globe.  And the cast dives gleefully into their over-the-top performances, with Ms. Ashford bowing and spinning at every opportunity and Reg Rogers (playing Essie’s lusty, Russian teacher, Boris Kolenkhov) erupting with Slavic rage at the slightest mention of the Soviet Union.  Martin (usually called “Grandpa”), too, is the ideal part of Mr. Jones, who has recently added a stagey cadence to his booming voice, ineffective for Shakespeare but suited to this brand of madness.

Moss and his partner Kaufman, who is mostly known now for writing Marx Brothers musicals and for his endlessly quotable wit—”I understand your new play is full of single entendres,” he is reputed to have once told a colleague—are no comic writers for the ages.  You Can’t Take It with You is charming, delightful, and big-hearted but entirely inessential.  It will not waste your time, surely, but on Broadway it might not be worth the price of admission, either.

You Can’t Take It With You runs through February 22nd at the Longacre Theatre.  220 W. 48th Street  New York, NY.  2 hours 20 minutes.  Two intermissions.

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Aaron Botwick

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