In 1936, the year it was written, You Can't Take It With You would have been described as zany or madcap. It's about the doings of a dotty, vaguely artistically inclined family. Penelope Sycamore writes plays because someone once left a typewriter on the doorstep. Her husband, Paul, makes fireworks in the basement, assisted by Mr. DePinna, a tradesman who, having come to the house several years earlier, never left. Daughter Essie is a candy-maker and aspiring ballerina — which means she's constantly going up on pointe and practicing her leaps and arabesques as she traverses the living room. Essie is married to Ed, who plays the xylophone. Grandpa Martin Vanderhof stopped working decades ago because work left him unfulfilled, and he now collects snakes. The only conventional member of the family – ignoring her habit of sliding blithely down the bannister — is daughter Alice, who has fallen in love with Tony, the son of the wealthy, upper-crust Kirbys. So what we have here is your basic clash-of-values, guess-who's-coming-to-dinner conflict — with the complicating factor of the IRS getting after Grandpa because he hasn't paid his taxes in thirty years. (On what, I kept wondering: his investments?)
There are some funny moments in this Pulitzer Prize winner, particularly in the second act, when the families collide and Penelope persuades everyone to play a word game that elicits unexpectedly revealing responses from the regal Mrs. Kirby. And the third act flames to life with the entrance of Grand Duchess Olga, a Russian aristocrat forced to earn a living as a waitress. But the play is definitely dated. With the exception of the brilliant Randy Moore playing Grandpa, I didn't find the Sycamores nearly as heart-warming and funny as they seemed to find themselves — which might have been the fault of both the script and some of the performances.
You Can't Take It With You was written at the height of the Depression, and it represents the kind of fizzy escapist fantasy that lots of people craved at the time — though it's a rich man's fantasy, with twit humor at its apex. What on earth is this family living on while they play kids' games and dabble in the arts, even employing a black couple (mercifully transmuted to Irish here) as maid and handyman? And aside from the fact that they're a good-humored, tolerant lot and treat their help well, what's supposed to be so admirable about them? Yes, it is a good idea to disengage from soul-shriveling pursuits now and then and smell the roses, but that's hardly a philosophy of life, despite Grandpa's eloquent defense of aimlessness and leisure at the play's climax.
You Can't Take It With You
Presented by the Denver Center Theatre Company through October 20, Stage Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex, 303-893-4100, www.denvercenter.org.
Still, there are a couple of reasons to see this Denver Center Theatre Company production. One is Moore's shrewd, funny, calculating Grandpa; he could give acting lessons on how to hold an audience rapt through the use of understatement and alert stillness. Kathleen M. Brady finally has a role she can sink her teeth into, bringing a gorgeous, blooming vitality to the role of the Grand Duchess Olga. If every character were played with this level of commitment and energy, I think I'd have roared with joyous laughter throughout the evening, notwithstanding the play's flaws. John Hutton is terrific as Mr. Kirby, and I liked David Ivers's happy, childish humor as Ed, as well as the amazed delight manifested by Jeanne Paulsen's Penelope — though overall this character could have been ditzier. As Alice, Nisi Sturgis is a pitch-perfect version of a 1930s comic-movie heroine. Christine Rowan feels too grounded and sensible for childish Essie, though you have to applaud the comic use to which she puts what must have been some serious ballet training. Richard Thieriot's Donal is charming, though Ailish Riggs is a little self-conscious as his partner, Reba. And while Mike Hartman fails to convince as either a Russian or a ballet teacher, maybe director Penny Metropulos intended us to infer that he's a fraud.
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A bigger question: why this mildly funny but entirely forgettable script was chosen for production at all.