You Can’t Take It With You
The 1930s, the era of great depression both monetarily and psychologically, produced some of the brightest concepts in our history. Among them were the theatrical marvels that Broadway introduced. These "chestnuts" -- a much misused term -- are still relevant in today’s world (chestnut is defined in the American Heritage Dictionary as "(6) an old, frequently repeated joke, story or song.") that should infer a delicious, well-rounded, specialty dish that gives great pleasure through its uniqueness. That is a much better description of Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman’s delectable comedies of the period including "You Can’t Take It With You," currently on stage at Hubbard Hall in Cambridge, New York, through Nov. 25.
The two partners-in-crime created many memorable characters during their years of collaboration, but none more delightful than Martin Vanderhof and his daughter Penny Sycamore and their house-mates, especially Mr. DePinna who came to deliver something and ended up moving in for more than eight years.
Vanderhof, known as Grandpa and immortalized in the film version by Lionel Barrymore, retired from business more than 30 years earlier to attend to his psychological self: attending graduations, sitting in the park and responding to nature, almost an original hippie of the late 1960s.
His daughter, her husband and their daughter Essie have joined him in this communal existence and his granddaughter Alice is now making an effort to move on into a more traditional world. The play tells the story of that attempt at normalcy.
That it involves G-Men, Trotsky, Russian emigres, fireworks, a drunken actress, an independent maid and her boyfriend and Wall Street executives makes the journey all that much more interesting. Alice loves Tony Kirby; she works as a secretary for his father; the senior Kirby is married to a wealth-weary woman; Essie’s husband Ed composes pieces by Beethoven and prints seditious sayings because they fit on one piece of paper; DePinna is trying to create a colossal firecracker display with balloons. This is the sort of madness that surrounds the audience for three acts lasting less than two and a half hours.
Director Jeannine Haas makes extensive use of the theater at Hubbard Hall for this show, angling her audience along an unseen wall in order to expand her playing area for this large cast, enormous dining table play. She has clearly defined her characters with her players for even the intermission is a singular delight as Rheba, the maid, changes the set in full character.
Haas has managed to show the universal ideas that Hart and Kaufman presented in their day; much of the show feels like today, not yesterday, and even the costumes designed by Sherry Recinella, while quite right for the 1930s, feel oddly contemporary.
Penny is played by Kim Johnson Turner, an actress whose naturalism shouldn’t read as funny, and yet it does. She approaches this character with an honesty that supports the writing and we can easily believe Penny became a playwright just because a typewriter was mistakenly delivered to her house. Turner makes it seem logical, somehow.
Her husband is played with a toothy grin by Doug Ryan and his look and his sweetness in expression and gesture are just right to explain his daughter Alice’s own personality and appearance.
Alice is played beautifully and sincerely by Myka Plunkett whose willowy stature is the equivalent of any movie star of the 1930s. She takes the personal tragedy of her romance out of keeping with her family’s reality with just enough pathos and just enough love. Plunkett never leaves the 21st century in playing the first half of the 20th century, but she makes them both seem to be the same thing and it works wonderfully.
Her "intended" is portrayed by Rylan Morsbach, who is both believable as her swain and unflappable as the scion of wealth and influence. His love scene is charming and simple, without force or restraint. He is the ideal man of this ideal woman and he lives just up to her expectations of him, perhaps a bit higher actually. It is written that way and it comes across just as the authors intended.
Essie, studying ballet, and Ed, inciting neighbors to contact authorities, are played by Catherine Seeley and Brett Hanselman. They are just right in their roles. Hanselman has an infectious smile that inspires smiles and Seeley is the awkward body played beautifully. They pair perfectly as in the second act dinner party "game."
Boris Kolenkhov, played by Chris Barlow, is Essie’s teacher and Ed’s inspiration. Barlow is a bit over the top at times and seemed uncomfortable in his costume. His is, perhaps, the only modestly weak link in the cast.
Christine Decker almost steals the show in two very different roles. She plays an older actress, Gay Wellington, to whom Penny is trying to market her plays and a few minutes later she is on stage as Tony Kirby’s father. It is a spectacular transition for an actress to make and she makes it so well you don’t realize that she has done it. She is hilarious in the first role and honest and direct in the second. Her third-act realization of his poor choices in life give Kirby, Sr. a humanity that is not usually felt in this play.
Erin Ouelette plays his unhappy, well-dressed wife and later appears as the Russian Grand Duchess turned waitress. She is fine in both parts as well although her appearance is not as drastically altered, which it should have been.
Tina Padgett is a fine choice for Rheba and Andy Volin as Donald, her boyfriend, has chosen some odd mannerisms and stylings that give a curious impression of the man that took some time to accustom myself to, but which I ultimately enjoyed.
As Grandpa Vanderhof, the actor Court Dorsey seems both genuine and cynical at the same time. Dorsey has a handsome face and a fine voice and seems almost too young for his family, but clearly is not. He handles philosophy, practical issues and personal contact with God in a manner that defines the people around him.
There is a marvelous sense of inclusiveness in his work on this stage. The way Dorsey speaks to other actors reinforces the character he plays here. He makes real eye contact. His touch is never dismissive or abusive, but is always loving, even with strangers in the story. It’s a beautiful performance.
The same is true of Scott Renzoni’s Mr. DePinna. This is a character easily taken overboard, but Renzoni always seems to be real and really humble about his person and his life. These two men truly hold the heart of the play in their hands and they deliver it up to us with grace and humor and charm.
The set design team includes the artistic director John Hadden, Benjie White and Karen Koziol and they’ve delivered the haphazard upper Manhattan house to perfection. In fact, near perfection is what this production delivers of that roasted "nut" that is this play. Travel, if you must, to see it. It many never get served up better than it is right now.