You Can’t Take it With You, at MPC, Oct 19, 2013

At MPC, you can take it with you

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Phil Hopfner, Rollie Dick and Cliff Berry. Photo by Veronica Ripley/MPC Theatre Company

By Philip Pearce

A staple of 1930s screwball comedy was the socialite heroine with a heart of gold and a lunatic family. Movie heroines like Carole Lombard and Irene Dunne were rescued from their silly snobbish kinfolk by leading men like William Powell and Douglas Fairbanks Jr., who restored them to the safety of middle class life and values. In You Can’t Take It With You, playwrights George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart stuck to the crazy family formula all right, but they turned it on its head in two important ways. They moved the heroine from the social register down into the middle class, while pairing her with a suitor from the New York banking world. And her cuckoo family then charmed the guy out of his Wall Street vice presidency and into their endearing do-your-own-thing neverland, thirty years before anybody ever heard of a hippie.

You Can’t Take It With You was a comforting anodyne to the ugly realities of the great depression. It ran for 838 performances, garnered a Pulitzer Prize, and spawned a movie adaptation that won the 1937 Best Picture Oscar.

In MPC’s current revival director Peter DeBono wisely keeps the story firmly in its historic setting with a set, props and costumes that reflect pre-war middle class America and nice 1930s pop music piped in before and after every scene.

As the only level head and regular paycheck in the free-wheeling Sycamore family, daughter Alice in some productions gets overshadowed by all the surrounding goofiness. The attractive and spirited Taylor Thorngate never lets that happen. Her clear voice and comic timing make Alice a match for any of the members of her tribe. As her weekday boss and new fiancé, Tony Kirby, Jay Kliewer skillfully manages the important change from suave Wall Street executive to anti-establishment idealist.

This all happens in what is probably the gentlest and least sardonic comedy Kaufman and Hart ever wrote, and the keynote figure for the whole amiable Sycamore circus is Grandpa Martin Vanderhof. Rollie Dick is absolutely marvelous as this patriarch who years ago walked into an elevator and out of a high salaried Wall Street job to take up a blissful life of stamp collecting, snake keeping, a passion for laughing his way through Ivy League commencement speeches and an ability to speak to God as if He were the corner grocer. If there is a local actor who can better exude an enthusiastic joy or point a comedy line with sharper skill than Dick, I don’t know who that is.

The ensemble cast supports him well. As his daughter  Penny, Judie Swartz is a daffy delight who writes plays with titles like “Poison Gas” and “Sex Takes a Holiday” because somebody delivered a typewriter to the house by mistake eight years ago. As her husband Paul, Phil Hopfner shifts convincingly from a frantic commitment to his miniature basement fireworks factory to occasional befuddled reflections on the family’s strange lifestyle. Alice’s sister Essie’s ambition is to be a ballerina. Tatum Tollner is hilariously inept in her pliés and pirouettes, usually accompanied by the lilting xylophone music of husband Ed, who showed up for a visit some time ago and just stayed around to marry the wannabe dancer. Bob Lindall is a double-threat in the role, negotiating the xylophone interludes with effortless skill and playing Ed’s manic enthusiasm for his printing press and scary confrontation with the FBI with comic brio and conviction.

An exuberant Russian refugee named Boris Kolenkhov, acted with tremendous vigor and wit by the wonderful and resourceful Mark Shilstone-Laurent, has tutored Essie for eight years, obviously mainly because lessons involve regular meals at the Sycamore dinner table and in spite of the fact that he knows that as a dancer “Confidentially, she stinks.” I was somewhat puzzled by Shilstone-Laurent’s repeated but unsuccessful efforts to throw his hat across a hallway onto a distant coat hook in the manner of 1930s comedian Bobby Hall. But even his failures were funny as was his startlingly convincing wrestling throw of a man half again bigger than himself at a high point of Act Two.

His manhandled wrestling victim is Anthony Kirby, father of the hero, who arrives in full evening dress with his socialite wife while a full-scale circus of lurching ballet, bubbling xylophone, enthusiastic oil painting and squirming pet snakes are going full throttle in the Sycamore living room. James Brady and Connie Erickson play down the usual stuffed-shirt bluster of the senior Kirbys. The result is that their comic moments, like the ill-conceived truth-telling parlor game, lose a bit of their bite. But the more rational and realistic approach to the parts make it easier to accept the speedy and somewhat unbelievable change of heart Kaufman and Hart have given Kirby in the final moments of the story.

An underlying element in the Sycamore lunacy is its power to attract visitors who, like Kolenkhov, keep on visiting or, like Ed, arrive for an evening and stay for the rest of their lives. Notable in this group of inspired hangers-on is Mr. De Pinna, recruited decades back as Paul’s fireworks assistant. The elfin and gasping Cliff Berry scurries back and forth from basement to living room with fresh and frantic pyrotechnic problems to be solved in time for a big July 4th display. But his biggest moment comes as Penny decides to abandon play writing for at least one evening and return to her long ago work of oil painting while De Pinna dons a toga—clad to pose as a discus thrower—and just in time for the unexpected arrival of the Kirbys.

Don’t ask how they can afford it, but the Sycamores also keep a full-time live-in African-American maid named Rheba, played by the charming and cheerful Asia Smith. Rheba nightly entertains boyfriend Donald, who is “on relief,” runs lickety split errands to the A & P grocery and is a devotee of the popular thirties evangelist Father Divine. The black couple’s philosophic reflections on the puzzling excesses of the Sycamores provide some welcome peace and quiet after a truly explosive second act climax.

It’s a big cast with even the smallest roles played with conviction, but special praise needs to go to L.J. Thomas, who provides a memorable Act One cameo in the role of an increasingly frustrated Internal Revenue agent.

Jokes about Father Divine and Mrs Roosevelt will be a stretch for most 2013 audiences. But if the play often shows its age, it also provides a nice nostalgic look not at how people actually behaved but at the kind of theatrical fare they found irresistible seventy years ago.

The production continues Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30, Sundays at 2, until November 3rd.