You Can’t Take It With You
29 October 2014
George S Kaufman and Moss Hart once ruled Broadway. They were masters of their craft, wrote clever, intricate scripts for great comic plays, collaborated with other writers and composers and directed their own work and the work of others. Their one collaboration which resulted in a Pulitzer Prize, in 1936, was You Can’t Take It With You, a three Act blueprint for simple enjoyment and perhaps the archetypal “kooky” comedy.
Now playing at Broadway’s Longacre Theatre is Scott Ellis’ starry revival of You Can’t Take It With You, a production which, over three Acts and 150 minutes, reminds you what simple, charming and infectious fun good old-fashioned theatre can be. This may not be the funniest, or best acted, or re-imagined or avant garde revival of a classic Broadway will see this year, but it certainly must be a top runner for most charming revival. Which is good, because Kaufman and Hart wrote this play to be charming, not sincere.
Ellis understands that entirely. His direction is smooth and assured, with infinite touches of joy in every corner of the arena where the action occurs. There are forced laughs, natural laughs, gentle laughs, belly laughs and many, many smiles over the course of the production. By the final Act, however, you realise that Ellis had a clear purpose from the very start; a magic trick he pulls off with finesse.
The play concerns the wild and wonderful Sycamore family. Most of them have no jobs, really, and to say each was idiosyncratic would be kind. They are a collection of loveable, extreme freaks: Grandad left the rat race 35 years ago and lives for pleasure; Dad plays with toys and devises fireworks for sale, so explosions from the cellar are de trop; Mum writes plays because one day a typewriter was accidentally delivered to her and before that she “painted”; Sis wants to be a star dancer, wears tap shoes constantly and adopts poses seen in silent movies and her husband is camp (in a way which makes Julian Cleary seem butch) and obsessed with printing presses and “making an impression” when greeting a new person; and Alice, ostensibly the “normal” one, has a touch of all of them about her and loves her family dearly.
They collect others along the way, so the Sycamore menagerie is even more bizarrely varied than the central family members suggest. When Alice falls madly in love with respectable Wall St tycoon-in-the-making, Tony Kirby, she realises that they have no future because his impeccably credentialed and wealthy family will never accept her own eclectic relatives. So Tony brings his mother and father to meet his prospective in-laws and mayhem, outrage, imprisonment, heartbreak and self-realisation all follow. Not to mention exploding fireworks, drunken actresses and impossibly grand Russian aristocracy.
It’s all meticulously plotted, the characters beautifully written and the situations surprisingly fresh despite the passage of nearly 80 years. What this revival proves, above all else, is the genius of both Kaufman and Hart.
The first Act introduces the audience to the extreme eccentricities of the family. Ellis goes about this in a quite no-holds barred way, with the result that sometimes things seem a trifled forced. But the truth if it is that Ellis is ensuring that the audience understand quite how extreme these characters are, how frenzied and bizarre, yet completely calm, their lives together are, how accommodating and forgiving they are. The milk of human kindness does not run in their veins, it races at the speed of light.
The result is that, in Act Two, when Tony’s family visits, the audience is used to the extremes of the family and their hangers-on, so the haughty repulsion exhibited by Tony’s parents seems understandable but unfair, lacking in decency. This is clever work from both Ellis and the gorgeous cast. And it means that the resolutions in the third Act are underscored by real emotion and the essence of humanity. It’s never mawkish, but it turns out to be quite moving – eccentricity and individualism win out over slavish adherence to peer-pressured norm. It turns out there is a message in the madness, a message with much work to do in this century.
The starry cast is superb. Rose Byrne, in her Broadway debut, is beautiful and whacky as the “normal” Alice. Her eyes betray her family’s wild tendencies and she has some beautiful moments of physical comedy. And her relationship with Franz Kranz’ handsome Tony is utterly convincing, awkward, blooming and real. He is a comic joy, especially in the scene where he asks for her hand in marriage but also, constantly, in his silent responses to the oddness that he encounters in the Sycamore house.
Kristine Neilsen is marvelously dotty, but wonderfully sincere, as Alice’s loving mother. She has a marvelous voice and uses it perfectly here, finding the vagueness in the comedy wherever possible. As her inventive, explosive, husband Mark Linn-Baker is captain of the good ship Understated and this reaps many comic rewards. His wildness is interior, cerebral; Neilsen externalises her character’s eccentricities beautifully – they make a great team.
Annaleigh Ashford is out there as the dancing obsessed, candy making, student of the Russian language, so out there she may as well be in orbit, but it is a performance of great consistency and she gets every laugh she aims for. Matching her extremity, and perhaps explaining it in some ways, or, at the very least, complementing it, is Will Brill’s fey, silly Ed, her husband. At first he seemed too ridiculously extreme, a limp wrist too far – but the unflagging energy and commitment he brings to that extremity across the three Acts shows his acting choices to be correct. They make a fabulously memorable odd couple.
There are marvelous cameos from Julie Halston (her drunken on-all-fours ascent of a staircase while reciting a limerick which she finds intensely amusing is a true highlight of the evening), Elizabeth Ashley (hilarious as the Russian aristocrat who now cooks in a Times Square diner) and Johanna Day (her society matron with a penchant for lust is sheer delight).
And at the top of the tree, with a sense of grace and a fabulous twinkle in his eye, is James Earl Jones, completely at ease as the Patriarch of the Sycamores. His unique voice and tangible charisma assists in making every moment work, whether he is lecturing a government official about the evils of income tax, giving permission to his grandson-in-law to start a family or taking the imperious Mr Kirkby (a wonderful turn from Byron Jennings) to task. He is a complete joy in the role and one of those rare examples where colour blind casting really works.
The rest of the cast are all lovely and do excellent work. No one seeks the limelight wrongly or uses techniques which don’t fit. There is a beautiful sense of togetherness from the entire ensemble which is, of course, critical in a vehicle such as this.
David Rockwell’s set is spectacularly good. At first a street exterior, where one colourful house lies between more boring, conventional ones; then it revolves, and the cluttered, colourfully eccentric interior of the Sycamore residence is revealed. The walls and surfaces are stuffed with trinkets and objects – even a tank of live snakes – and there is not enough time to take in all of the detail. Wonderful. Jane Greenwood’s fabulous period costumes are perfect and gorgeous, particularly for Byrne, Nielsen and Ashley. There are shoes to die for.
Jason Robert Brown provides some delightful incidental music which never intrudes but always assists the sense of infectious joy.
You Can’t Take It With You is a bundle of Broadway joy, certain to lighten even the darkest mood. And contrary to the title, what you can take with you from this production is the happy feeling that gentle comedy can create and sustain.
You Can’t Take It With You runs until February 22,2015.
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