Gracie Navaille as Alice, Roland Shorter as Tony and Cristal Clark as Essie
By Philip Pearce
THE WESTERN STAGE has just opened its 2015 Repertory Season with a warm and exuberant production of Kaufman and Hart’s Pulitzer Prize winning You Can’t Take It With You.
Some part of the advance publicity describes the play as screwball comedy. If that’s so, it’s an almost uniquely unusual example of the genre. Study other 1930s screwball classics and you’ll find that, on the surface or just beneath it, there’s a streak of cruelty. Irene Dunne and Cary Grant spend The Awful Truth blithely cooking up sneaky erotic tricks to play on each other. Carole Lombard’s My Man Godfrey family are a pack of loopy Manhattan sociopaths. In The Young in Heart, Janet Gaynor belongs to a family of globe-trotting con artists. The Vanderhof-Sycamore clan of You Can’t Take It With You are a different breed. No sneakiness. No sly tricks. Everybody loves everybody else and everybody openly encourages everybody else to do their own goofy thing and, never mind bread lines or the Great Depression, there’s always room for another place at the family dinner table.
Grandpa Martin Vanderhof, patriarch of the clan, abandoned his lucrative banking job years ago because he wasn’t having any fun and has since occupied his time and talents breeding snakes, playing darts and laughing his way through pompous commencement speeches at local schools. Clifford Gilkey is relaxed and appealing as he moves through the role, encouraging everybody he meets to drop out and enjoy life. It’s only in Grandpa’s two famous dinner-table blessings, with the old gentleman casually bringing the Almighty up to date on family events, that Gilkey seems a bit tentative.
Like much of the stage and film material that has survived the troubled thirties, You Can’t Take It With You is adroitly crafted escape entertainment. George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart have created a neverland of inspired home-grown self expression and goodwill, as unbelievable if you stop to analyze it as it is attractive if you don’t bother. But there’s a danger that playing it all too sweet and fuzzy can produce an unwelcome sugar high in an audience. One of the blessings of this excellent version is the way co-directors Jeff McGrath and Harvey Landa keep the gifted cast of 19 players from tripping over their halos. The actors work together as a well-integrated ensemble with a sharpness that gives the production much of its point and energy.
As Grandpa’s daughter Penny Sycamore, Sheryl Games isn’t some spaced-out goof who has wandered vaguely into an eccentric hobby. Her Penny is a determined woman, warmhearted but capable of bursts of anger, who writes trashy play scripts not as a nice optional extra but from what seems like a passionate conviction that that’s what she wants to do more than anything else in the world. As her husband Paul, Lewis Rhames works out his problems with a store of fireworks with a similar focus and commitment. As their ballet-mad elder daughter Essie, Cristal Clark may at first seem all candy-cooking sweetness and tweety-bird dance moves till it comes to demonstrating that she’s a better dancer than Ginger Rogers by gripping her younger sister’s startled boyfriend in a hammerlock and nearly breaking his leg. Her husband Ed is played by Victor Velasquez with a directness and sincerity that makes us really care when he unwittingly runs foul of the F.B.I.
Younger daughter Alice (the spirited and attractive Gracie Navaille) who’s apparently been too busy working for a Wall Street bank to develop any major eccentricities, has fallen in love with the boss’ son “…just like in the movies!” according to Essie. Much as Alice loves her folks, she’s convinced that her fiancé Tony (played with charm and determination by Roland Shorter) and, more important, his starchy socialite parents, need to be gradually eased into the engagement at a dinner party sanitized from the more glaring of the Sycamore quirks and oddities. Tony sabotages the scheme by bringing his parents a day early to an improvised collision between the two life styles that ends with everyone in jail thanks to a mass explosion from Paul’s cellar full of fireworks.
It’s unfair not to mention the fine work of the whole company: there’s the inimitable and deftly funny Mark Shilstone-Laurent who seems to be making a habit of playing Essie’s sardonic ballet teacher Boris Kolenkhov. There’s a pair of lively, resourceful and patient black domestics named Donald and Rheba played delightfully by Gabriel Williams and Denisha Ervin. There’s Ron Perek as Paul’s firecracker colleague Mr. DePinna, who starts out pleasant and quietly accommodating and then brings the house down by stripping down to a moth-eaten toga and posing for a portrait of the classical discus thrower. Tom Perlman shows up in a funny, frustrated first-act cameo as an enraged I.R.S. agent who can’t persuade Grandpa to pay 22 years’ worth of back taxes. And we have a has-been actress named Gay Wellington too hilariously drunk in the person of Joanne Engelhardt to manage a first reading of one of Penny’s play scripts. Pat Horsley arrives in Act Three, regally flamboyant as a deposed Russian Grand Duchess who waits tables at a Childs restaurant and ends up in the Sycamores’ kitchen making blintzes for everyone.
And there’s Fred Herro and Judie Swartz in a fine pair of comic stuffed-shirt performances as suitor Tony’s up-tight parents. Swartz nearly screams the roof off the Studio Theatre as she encounters Grandpa’s snake collection. And Herro is particularly wonderful in his tight-lipped reactions to a highly unsuitable party game initiated by Penny in which he makes some unwelcome discoveries about his sex life with Swartz.
If the cast falters, it’s in an occasional tendency to run too fast and push too hard at some of the comedy dialogue. There are moments when, instead of letting one-liners emerge naturally from the mouths and personalities of the character who speaks them, actors illustrate the quip with broad gestures and body language that make it more like a piece of stand-up than a believable moment in what is actually happening at that point in the story. It’s clear enough, for example, that the snobby Mrs Kirby has suffered embarrassment from sharing a jail cell with a night club stripper without having the report of her plight punctuated with unbelievable bumps and grinds from the person reporting. Hart and Kaufman dialogue (and audience intelligence) are good enough at making a point, developing a character and getting a laugh without added “pointers” from a performer.
No matter. Even if the 1930s are such a distant period of history that you don’t catch references to Kay Francis or Father Divine, this is a great evening in the Western Stage Studio Theatre.