“Your family and mine … it just wouldn’t work.”
Alice, the most normal member of the eccentric Sycamore family in the old-fashioned crowd-pleasing comedy “You Can’t Take It With You,” is talking to the man she loves, explaining why she can’t marry him.
“Everybody’s got a family,” Tony protests.
“But not like mine,” Alice says.
Actually, in the 78 years since Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman debuted their comedy on Broadway – a show for which words like wacky and zany and madcap were surely coined — there have been many, many such families, including many Sycamores: The production directed by Scott Ellis that has now opened at the Longacre with a cast of 20 led by James Earl Jones is the sixth on Broadway. An Oscar-winning 1938 film version directed by Frank Capra with a cast led by Jimmy Stewart and Lionel Barrymore pops up all the time. But, most to the point, the show’s characters and plot have clearly inspired everything from The Addams Family to La Cage Aux Folles to Arrested Development — and arguably, one way or another, every other “family” sitcom on TV.
Still, one can see this Broadway revival as especially well-timed, coming just a few months after Lincoln Center’s stage adaptation of Moss Hart’s memoir “Act One.”
That memoir focused on Hart’s first big hit with George S. Kaufman, “Once in a Lifetime,” which opened on Broadway in 1930. Six years and several collaborations later, their “You Can’t Take It With You” was deemed by critic Brooks Atkinson “a much more spontaneous piece of hilarity…written with a dash of affection to season the humor…” The comedy won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
If the humor is more familiar now, “You Can’t Take It With You” is in the hands of a first-rate director, who has assembled a meticulous team of designers, added original music by Jason Robert Brown, and cast some wonderful performers to blow things up — sometimes literally.
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James Earl Jones is Grandpa, who decided some 35 years ago, to stop working and start enjoying life. He keeps a collection of snakes, and spends his days attending circuses and college commencements. He also has not paid any income tax since 1914, when the United States started collecting it.
His daughter Penelope (Kristine Nielsen, so wonderful in Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike) has written plays for the last eight years, ever since a typewriter was delivered to the Sycamore household by mistake, with two live kittens as companions, and a skull that pivots open as a container for her candy. It is a clue to the manic quality of the events to follow that she’s named her two kittens Groucho and Harpo.
Penelope’s husband Paul (Mark Linn-Baker) spends night and day creating fireworks, which provide some lively punctuation to each of the three acts of the play. Their daughter Essie (stand-out Annaleigh Ashford, from Kinky Boots and Masters of Sex) spends most of her day practicing her dancing, to hilarious effect, often to the accompaniment of her husband Ed (Will Brill) who plays the xylophone.
The household is far from a nuclear one, however (unless you are describing their level of energy), for there are various hangers-on whose connection to the Sycamore residence we learn only in passing. Mr. DePinna (Patrick Kerr), for example, helps Paul with his fireworks; he was delivering the ice to the Sycamores eight years ago, and never left. The priceless Julie Halston portrays a drunken actress that Penelope the playwright has dragooned into the household to read one of her plays.
This is the household that Penelope’s other daughter, the straitlaced Alice (Rose Byrne from Bridemaids, making her Broadway debut) fears is too much of a handful for Tony Kirby (Fran Kranz), a junior Wall Street executive, and his family. That there will be sparks is never in doubt. But the look on the face of Mrs. Kirby (Johanna Day) as she regards the eccentricities of her future in-laws is unmatched — except maybe by the double-take by Elizabeth Ashley, who plays the deposed Grand Duchess Olga Katrina, working as a waitress at Child’s Restaurant. I see I left out the G-men and Russian revolutionaries, and the dance master Boris Kolenkhov (Reg Rogers) who thinks everything stinks.
“Art is only achieved through perspiration,” Kolenkhov declares.
“Yes,” Grandpa concedes, “but it helps if you’ve got a little talent with it.” It helps even more, as Moss Hart, George S. Kaufman and the creative team behind this production demonstrate, if you have a lot.
At Longacre Theater
Written by: George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart
Directed by Scott Ellis, scenic design by David Rockwell, costume design by Jane Greenwood, lighting design by Donald Holder, sound design by Jon Weston, original music by Jason Robert Brown
Cast: James Earl Jones, Kristine Nielsen, Rose Byrne, Annaleigh Ashford, Elizabeth Ashley, Mark Linn-Baker, Crystal A. Dickinson, Julie Halston, Byron Jennings, Marc Damon Johnson, Patrick Kerr, Reg Rogers, Will Brill, Fran Kranz, Johanna Day, Nick Corley, Austin Durant, Joe Tapper, Barrett Doss, Ned Noyes, Pippa Pearthree
Running time: 2 hours and 15 minutes, including two ten minute intermissions
Tickets: $37.00 – $152.00
You Can’t Take It With You is scheduled to run through January 4, 2015
Update: Extended to February 22, 2015