You Can't Take It With You
nytheatre.com review by David Fuller
June 7, 2007
Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman concocted a masterpiece back in 1936. Certainly playwrights don't begin with that goal. Perhaps born out of a desire to create a Depression Era divertissement, these two famous collaborators constructed a wonderful play about life, love, and just plain getting along. You Can't Take It With You was a hit and it won the Pulitzer Prize in 1937. Frank Capra made it into an Academy Award winning movie in 1938 (Best Picture, Best Director). Since then, it has been adapted for television, twice successfully revived on Broadway, and performed countless times in high schools and community and regional theaters throughout the country. This delightfully durable comedy continues to entertain, even in the climate of our somewhat jaded early 21st century, and the T. Schreiber Studio production currently running in Chelsea is particularly commendable, under the assured direction of Peter Jensen.
The play takes place at the New York City home of Martin Vanderhof, a philosophical patriarch who abandoned the hurlyburly business word 35 years ago to pursue a life of snake hunting, commencement viewing, and generally doing what he pleases. His daughter and son-in-law, Penelope and Paul Sycamore, have raised their two children Essie and Alice, in Grandpa's mold while following their own unique paths. Penelope writes plays (because a typewriter was mistakenly delivered to the house) and paints, while Paul builds erector set models and makes fireworks in the basement (the latter with the help of Mr. DePinna, the ice man who made a delivery eight years ago and just stayed). Of the third generation, Essie has followed the family, steadfastly pursuing her dream of being a ballerina while also running a small candy-making operation. Her husband, Ed, is passionate about printing (he prints just about anything on a perfectly noisy press) and the xylophone (he enthusiastically accompanies his wife's jetés and battements). Rheba, the cook, and Donald, her boyfriend and helper, complete the household, with the semi-permanent Mr. Kolenkhov, a Russian expatriate who gives Essie ballet lessons.
Somehow, despite this madcap environment, youngest daughter Alice has become the oddball in the Vanderhof/Sycamore household—she is a secretary on Wall Street. And she is in love with the boss's son, Tony Kirby, whose family is "normal." Over Alice's objections that the two families would never mesh, the couple becomes engaged and a dinner party is set for the Kirbys and Sycamores to meet, chez Vanderhof. The snakes are to be put in the basement, the fireworks set aside, and everyone is to be on their best behavior. Unfortunately the Kirbys come a day early, amidst the usual household chaos. Fireworks ensue, both figuratively and literally, and everyone ends up spending the night in jail.
The next day, Alice is set on dissolving the engagement and going away, but Tony comes by to try to persuade her otherwise. Mr, Kirby appears to get his son, and there follows a confrontation between Kirby and Grandpa that is the crux of the play: "You've got all the money you need. You can't take it with you. . . . Where does the fun come in?. . . We haven't got too much time, you know—any of us." Happily, Mr. Kirby sees Grandpa's point, the couple re-unites, and everyone sits down for their delayed get-acquainted dinner.
The hilarity of the clash of the two cultures, one doing what one is "supposed" to do and the other doing what it "wants" to do, is the stuff that has given birth to countless sitcoms, though to say that is by no means to diminish the work—Hart and Kaufman have crafted remarkably honest and genuine characters. At the T. Schreiber Studio, the cast plays this honesty well, giving us characters but no caricatures. With a few actors, this honesty doesn't go above an almost too gentle naturalism (I would have preferred some occasional passion in Grandpa and Paul) but this is a matter of personal taste. All the actors are fun to watch and have their shining moments. To single out any would be to neglect others—suffice to say director Jensen has assembled an ensemble that clearly understands the material and knows how to deliver it to us. Jensen should be specifically commended for his staging, which seems effortless despite scenes that must have been demanding to block. He also gives us a unique touch with some amusing and inventive choreography during set changes.
Speaking of the set, Ryan Scott's design is darn near perfect, right down to that noisy printing press and period Erector Set. Eric Larson's lights are exactly right—just the kind of design you want for a show like this—they are so good you don't even notice them. Summer Lee Jack gives us costumes that are just right, too. They suit everyone wonderfully, though special mention has to go to the lovely dresses she gives Alice to wear. Sound designer Chris Rummel has fun with the various effects called for and suitably startles us when the pyrotechnics get out of hand.
You Can't Take It With You ranks as one of the best American comedies of the 20th century. With that patented Kaufman wit and that gentle Hart comedic touch, this play stands the test of time. What it has to say about Life, about the necessity for us to make every moment of every day count, to love ourselves, each other, and our lives, is as pertinent today as in 1936. I especially like what Jensen writes in his Director's Note, which sums up the universal appeal of this play: "Grandpa's philosophy, to live in the moment and follow your heart, is offered as a portal, for those who go through it, to love." It's nice to be reminded of this and the T. Schreiber Studio production does it charmingly.