In the height of the depression, George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart wrote a madcap comedy about an eccentric family that seemed to survive very nicely on whatever nest egg they had and the salary of one member of the family. The 1936 comedy, You Can’t Take It with You won the Pulitzer Prize for drama.
An all-star revival is gracing Broadway this fall. You might wonder if the play holds up after almost 80 years: it does. Yes, it is silly and madcap but sometimes we need that.
The play takes place in the home of Martin Vanderhof, the pater familius, who decided some years ago to quit work — from the look of the house he was obviously very successful — and do only what he wanted which included keeping snakes and not paying income tax. His daughter Penelope writes dreadful plays because one day a typewriter was delivered by mistake to the house. Her husband Paul creates firecrackers in the basement with his assistant Mr. De Pinna. Their daughter Essie is an aspiring ballerina and candy maker who also lives there with her husband Ed, who plays the xylophone and helps distribute the candy. A Russian ballet teacher visit frequently. The only conventional family member is Alice who is the secretary to an important executive; they are smitten with each other.
Act one introduces the characters and the complications — an IRS agent visits to inquire about the lacking tax returns — and Alice’s boyfriend, Tony comes to pick her up for a date.
Act two is a week later when Tony and his straight-laced parents show up for dinner to meet Alice’s family BUT they are a day early. Instead of the orderly and polite dinner, the parents are exposed to the rambunctiousness and disorder of this unconventional household including some explosions in the basement.
Of course, act three must involve straightening the whole mess out and allowing Alice and Tony to live “happily ever after.”
Director Scott Ellis has assembled a cast of comic masters to keep the pace moving and the laughs coming. His mistake may be letting them run too wild; sometimes comedy is best if the characters are more restrained.
Rose Byrne, known for her film work and in the TV series Damages, makes her Broadway debut as Alice — the most “normal” member of the family. She does a fine job walking the line between exasperation at the relatives’ antics, desperation that her lover’s family will never agree to a marriage or be able to adapt to the family, and deep love and appreciation for her family.
James Earl Jones is the pater familius who has led his family by example. Kristine Nielsen is the flighty Penelope who seems to be channeling some of Edith Bunker’s nervous ticks. Mark Lynn Baker — a wonderful clown does not have enough to do as the relatively quiet fire cracker-making husband.
As the aspiring ballerina, Annaleigh Ashford is ditzy andlaughably uncoordinated though at times she swallows her lines. Will Brill as her husband seems to carry eccentric mannerisms to an extreme.
Each of the minor characters — Reg Rogers as the Russian ballet teacher, Julie Halston as a alcoholic actress who somehow managers to show up in the household and Patrick Kerr as Mr. DePinna are all fine.
Fran Kranz as Tony has to balance straightness and sincerity with an undertone of rebelliousness. He does it well. Byron Jennings and Johanna Day as his parents are stuck with rather thankless roles — because they represent conventional behavior, they are much less interesting than the other characters.
Even Elizabeth Ashley has a cameo in the third act as Russian royal. She is hilarious.
David Rockwell has created an overly jammed set that at times distracts from the characters. There seems to be just too many knickknacks that you eye and mind is drawn away from the action. Jane Greenwood has created authentic looking 1930s costumers and Donald Holder has done fine lighting design. Jason Robert Brown as composed original music that adds to the charm of the piece.
Overall, You Can’t Take It with You is a laugh filled evening in the theater even if, at times, the production does not quite live up to what it could be.