I am a big fan of theater that utilizes sparse sets or innovative lighting. I am all for pushing the boundaries of the stage. But great theater takes all forms and “You Can’t Take It With You,” at New York’s Longacre, is a great piece of theater.
The play, written by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, premiered in 1936, but it holds up brilliantly. Set in the New York home of Martin Vanderfof (Grandpa), the action revolves around the eccentric family and friends that live their happy lives doing exactly what they want. There’s the main conceit — doing what you love surrounded by people you lobv can lead to a happy life. That’s about there is to it. Of course, complications arise along the way, but all is resolved by just letting go.
When Martin’s granddaughter, Alice Sycamore (Rose Byrne), falls in love with Tony Kirby (Fran Kranz), who works for his father’s Wall Street firm, she worries that her eccentric community will put the kibosh on her chances of marriage. She plans a get-to-know-you dinner with the ultra-conservative Kirbys, but when they show up at the house a day early, mayhem ensues.
It is hard to understate how endearing this whacky family is. Essie (magnificently played by Annaleigh Ashford), the wanna-be dancer, prances her way through every scene with hilarious ineptitude, yet her totally earnest dedication to dance is admirable. Her husband Ed (Will Brill), who “came to dinner five years ago and never left” — Mr. DePinna (Patrick Kerr) came and stayed eight years ago — accompanies her on the xylophone when he is not printing subversive slogans to insert in boxes of candy (not that he is a subversive, he just likes to print things).
Mother Penelope Sycamore (Kristine Nielsen) writes plays because someone once delivered a typewriter to the wrong address — before that she was a painter. Husband Paul (Mark Linn Baker) makes fireworks in the basement. Maid Rheba (Crystal Dickinson) and her boyfriend Donald (Marc Damon Johnson) are treated as much like family as everyone else.
That Tony-winner Elizabeth Ashley appears only in Act 3 speaks the excellence of the ensemble, and this is truly an ensemble piece. James Earl Jones plays Grandpa and one would expect a star turn, but he dutifully takes his place in a company of equals. The rest of the fine ensemble includes Karl Kenzler, Reg Rogers, Julie Halston in a hilarious turn, Byron Jennings, Johanna Day, Nick Corley, Austin Durant and Joe Tapper.
The set is astonishing, with the interior of a house full of eccentrics recreated in loving detail.
The timing is superb and the three acts whizz by in a sprightly two hours.
This is a play I have been dying to direct for several years, and seeing this excellent production just makes me want it more.
The denouement of the play wraps itself up nicely, exactly as Grandpa expects — just take care of things you can and let go of the rest. It’s a gentle philosophy, but who knows, it just might work.
The show runs through Feb. 22.