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With its spirited defense of lives lived for sheer joy rather than for achievement, ambition, financial gain or rank, the 1936 play You Can’t Take It With You proved an escapist tonic in the midst of the Great Depression. It has remained irresistible in the decades since, in particular to anyone ambivalent about that overrated concept of the work ethic. The prototype for countless comedies about wacky families blithely out of step with the world around them, this giddy romp by Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman is a perennial favorite of high school and community theaters but has been absent from Broadway for 30 years. So it’s time to give it a warm welcome back.
The deluxe revival is directed with unflagging energy and an assured grasp of the play’s shifting rhythms by comedy pro Scott Ellis. This is a work that champions the individualist, and the director follows suit by marshaling his impeccable cast to create loopy characterizations. Yet in what might be the most crucial requirement, they all inhabit the same universe, banding together in defiance of the hard times blighting the nation. That applies whether they are charter members of the eccentric Vanderhof-Sycamore clan or figures drawn either voluntarily or haplessly into the family’s chaotic orbit.
Sure, there are signs of creakiness in the writing and three-act structure. But these are such inspired characters and situations that the dated references fly by like a pleasant breeze and the lunacy remains highly infectious. While eyebrow-raising laughs are drawn out of an African-American character’s cheerful reliance on welfare, showing the age of the pre-PC comedy, the sly subversiveness of its anti-establishment humor still tickles.
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The fun starts with designer David Rockwell‘s splendid set, a turn-of-the-century, two-story upper Manhattan home sandwiched between 1930s-modern apartment blocks. As those flanking towers fly off into the wings, the main facade revolves to disgorge a veritable museum of oddball artworks and antiques, its shelves bulging with books and tchotchkes and its walls all but covered with paintings and curios. There’s so much fascinating detail in this bohemian clutter that the production might want to consider offering onstage tours during intermission.
The inhabitants are no less colorful. Presiding over them all with a benevolent eye is Grandpa Vanderhof (James Earl Jones), who quit the business world 35 years ago and shrugs off persistent letters from the IRS because he doesn’t believe in paying income tax. His daughter Penny (Kristine Nielsen) has been laboring without distinction as a would-be playwright since a typewriter was delivered by mistake eight years earlier. Her husband, Paul Sycamore (Mark Linn-Baker), spends his days making fireworks in the cellar with permanent houseguest Mr. DePinna (Patrick Kerr), who came to deliver ice one day and never left.
Also still in the nest are the Sycamores’ daughter Essie (Annaleigh Ashford), whose dreams of becoming a ballerina are undiminished by lack of talent; and her husband Ed (Will Brill), who plays Beethoven on the xylophone to accompany his wife’s interpretive dance displays. Ed’s other passion is his printing press. He randomly prints quotations lifted from a Trotsky volume left lying around, placing them inside the boxes of Essie’s homemade candy that he sells in the neighborhood.
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The household also includes unflappable live-in maid Rheba (Crystal A. Dickinson), whose sweetheart Donald (Marc Damon Johnson) is a frequent visitor and unofficial handyman, though being “on relief” from the government, he declines payment.
Finally, there’s Essie’s lovely sister Alice (Rose Byrne), who wants to live a “normal” life yet remains fiercely devoted to her nutty family. This is a key role that requires idiosyncrasy embedded in the character’s DNA, battling against more conventional aspirations. In a captivating Broadway debut, Byrne shows her refined comedic chops by playing a grounded girl with a dreamy streak of lovestruck daffiness.
The key conflict builds around Rose’s engagement to Tony Kirby (Fran Kranz), the boss’s son at the Wall Street firm where she works as a secretary. Already chafing against the constraints of a preordained career in finance, Tony responds instinctually to the anarchic nobility of Rose’s family and to their environment of unquestioning love and support. But a predictable clash ensues when he brings his uptight parents (Bryon Jennings, Johanna Day) over to meet the prospective in-laws. Mr. Kirby in particular takes issue with Grandpa Vanderhof’s view that nobody should live for their work, decreeing it a dangerously un-American philosophy.
Jones is a venerable theater lion who mostly saunters through this production with a twinkle in his eye and a hint of mischief in his words. But it’s in the late action that the actor’s natural gravitas and wisdom really shine, when Grandpa’s role as peacemaker comes to the fore after disastrous developments threaten to derail the romance of Alice and Tony.
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This is a well-oiled ensemble full of delightful character turns from actors as adept with the witticisms as they are with the physical comedy. Nielsen, a Tony nominee for Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, draws on her familiar bag of tics but invests them with genuine warmth that places Penny alongside Grandpa at the heart of the extended family. Byrne and Kranz bring charming chemistry to the central romance. Ashford, whirling around en pointe and striking melodramatic “Dying Swan” poses at ridiculous moments, is a hoot. And Brill is her ideal match, reacting with fey, gangly excitement at every turn.
Sparkling comic caricatures come also from Reg Rogers as Essie’s Russian emigre ballet instructor; Julie Halston as an alcoholic actress Penny meets on a bus; and Elizabeth Ashley, no less, in the small role of a Grand Duchess who fled Russia before the Revolution and now waitresses in a Times Square chain restaurant. The fanciful notion of a whole line of deposed czarist aristocracy toiling in the New York service industry is just one of the gleeful ways Hart and Kaufman skewer hierarchies, whether based on class, wealth or government.
This is definitely old-fashioned Broadway entertainment, but in the hands of Ellis and his fine cast, it’s consistently pleasurable. “Life is kind of beautiful if you let it come to you,” suggests Grandpa, and indeed, the gentle radicalism of that tenet is hard to dispute.
Cast: James Earl Jones, Rose Byrne, Annaleigh Ashford, Johanna Day, Julie Halston, Byron Jennings, Patrick Kerr, Fran Kranz, Mark Linn-Baker, Kristine Nielsen, Reg Rogers, Elizabeth Ashley, Will Brill, Crystal A. Dickinson, Marc Damon Johnson, Nick Corley, Austin Durant, Karl Kenzler, Joe Tapper
Director: Scott Ellis
Playwrights: Moss Hart, George S. Kaufman
Set designer: David Rockwell
Costume designer: Jane Greenwood
Lighting designer: Donald Holder
Music: Jason Robert Brown
Sound designer: Jon Weston
Presented by Jeffrey Richards, Jerry Frankel, Jam Theatricals, Dominion Pictures, Gutterman & Winkler, Daryl Roth, Terry Schnuck, Jane Bergere, Caiola Productions, Rebecca Gold, Laruffa & Hinderliter, Larry Magid, Gabrielle Palitz, Spisto & Kierstead, Sunnyspot Productions, Venuworks Theatricals, Jessica Genick, Will Trice, by special arrangement with Roundabout Theatre Company
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