Is there anyone reading these words, with a desire to act, who didn’t, at some point in their lives, and probably in high school or community theatre, appear in a production of George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart’s You Can’t Take it With You? It has a large cast of eccentric characters, screwball humor, dreamlike innocence…all on one set…it’s the perfect everybody-gets-to-play play.
Debuting in 1936, the play established a template that will become a sitcom staple for years to come. There’s a large, sweetly eccentric-veering-into-outright-crazy, extended family under a single roof. Money always seems to be around, even though no one seems to be very gainfully employed; they don’t pay much attention to the IRS; every last one of them is a true oddball…except, somehow, the youngest-generation daughter. She’s kind of normal and she’s met a nice boy she wants to marry, and he wants to marry her too. Only his parents are (tacitly) WASP and (not-so-tacitly) stuck-up-conservative. And at some point the “normal” family will have to meet the “crazy” family and then…
I have memory flashes only of my own high school production, in which I played Kolenkhov, the Russian ballet teacher (I knew I’d get that part because nobody else could do the accent); and it does seem that I saw the last Broadway revival in 1983, though I have no memory of it whatsoever; but I’m rather glad of that because I think the current revival, directed by Scott Ellis, might well have put them to shame. (Not to mention the spectacular overload of the quaint-yet-vibrant living room set designed by David Rockwell.)
The thing about having that many eccentric characters is that you have to manage that many idiosyncratic character actors; and in a screwball comedy, which builds to a freneticism every bit as madcap as in a farce, you have to establish everyone cleanly, yet control the craziness, and still play everything for real stakes, and boy is that ever not easy. But Ellis’s production never shows the effort.
Indeed, with James Earl Jones as Grandpa, the avuncular head of the Vanderhoff family, Ellis has an anchoring eye-of-the-storm presence. Jones provides the solar center around which the familial planets revolve, with zooms, boinks, booms and bits. On the opposite end of things, to mangle the metaphor, there’s Rose Byrne as the aforementioned “normal” young woman. But she and her director know a secret: Alice is really only normal by way of contrast. Rather than play her blandly, or worse, blondely (in a metaphorical sense, that is), Ms. Rose takes her cue from comic leading ladies like Mary Tyler Moore. She’s only the grl-next-door up to a point. What she is really, is a worthy foil for the eccentrics around her, her ability to react in counter-kind creating a lovely, funny and sometimes even touching balance.
Other eccentrics include master comedy players like Kristine Neilsen, Analeigh Ashford, Mark Linn-Baker, Reg Rogers and Julie Halston, to name but a few; and though the potential in-laws really don’t get to play in that sandbox, they are at least played by actors of genuine presence, to give them their due weight as opposites: Byron Jennings and Johanna Day (as the parents) and Fran Kranz (as the suitor)
To take a play this familiar, this much of an American staple, and make it all seem delightful and fresh is no mean accomplishment; but turn to the current iteration by Ellis and company and crew for a primer. This is how you do it.
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