Everyman Theatre is closing out its season with a thoroughly enjoyable production of one of American theater’s greatest comedies, You Can’t Take It With You. George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart wrote six plays together from 1930–1940. At a time when the nation was still trying to recover from the Great Depression, they made people laugh. And they still do. Given our current economic climate, the Pulitzer Prize-winning play packs much of the same punch it did in 1936, when it premiered. Another reason the play was chosen was this was to be the last production in their current location, so Everyman wanted a show that would reunite a lot of familiar faces on these boards in a farewell performance. And again, it was a good one…even though it turns out not to be the theater’s swan song.
In broad strokes, here is what happens in the play: The Sycamore family is, well, let’s say unconventional. From building fireworks in the basement to adopting the odd delivery man her and there, they’d be a tough sell to new in-laws. Which is exactly what one daughter – Alice –has to do when she and the boss‘s son – Tony, Jr. – get engaged. The meeting between the families is as disastrous as you might imagine, daughter calls off the engagement, and in Act III, when all seems lost, wise ol’ Grandpa saves the day and everyone lives happily ever after.
The first person to walk onstage was the best. Caitlin O’Connell, as Penelope Sycamore, was wonderful. She is briefly upstaged by the cutest, tiniest little kitten I have ever seen (really, mama cat must have been backstage, this little one can’t be weaned yet), which is in the script, except that there are two in the script. Ms. O’Connell is entirely believable – and fun – as the slightly ditzy mom who is the height of adaptable and accommodating. Whatever comes up – and a lot does. The grandfather at one point says he’s going to live to 150 if crazy things are going to keep happening – she doesn’t seem to fully understand, but she’ll go with it and make everybody happy nonetheless. This includes starting to write plays eight years ago when – and solely because – a typewriter was delivered to the house by mistake.
Another outstanding character is Boris Kolenkhov. He is every cliché you’ve ever seen of a Russian dance master, played boldly and with great panaché by Bruce Randolph Nelson. He takes the character over the top without making him a one-dimensional clown. Mr. Nelson has such charisma on stage that when he burst into the house and introduced himself, it seemed only natural to go shake his hand and say hello. (Don’t worry, I didn’t.)
Everyman’s ‘You Can’t Take It With You’ is thoroughly enjoyable. It’s a really fun evening at the theater.
There are a couple other roles that would have been clowns but for the ability of the actors. Showing up at the up of Act II is Barbara Pinolini’s Gay Wellington. Miss Wellington is an actress, at the house, ostensibly to read for one of Penny’s plays, but really, she’s just there for laughs. Falling down drunk the whole time she’s on stage, Ms. Pinolini adds her own lovely little touches. Like trying to cross her legs and missing.
The Grand Duchess Olga, in Act III, ousted from Russia along with the rest of the royal family, now works as a waitress at the legendary – and then ubiquitous – Childs’. In the capable hands of Kimberly Schraf, the pride Olga takes in working her way up the “corporate” ladder, envisioning that glorious day when she is transferred to (gasp) Schraffs’, is wonderful to behold. And her energy easily matches that of compatriot Kolenkhov.
As Mrs. Kirby, the über-stuffy mother of Tony, Jr., Deborah Hazlett starts out a bit overdone and not quite real. But then, when she wants to leave and can’t, she gives us one of the longest, most comical series of facial expressions I’ve seen recently, and continues at that level throughout. Chinai Hardy as Rheba, the maid, has every opportunity to overplay the character and she does not. Her Rheba is a complete, real character, which is especially good since she’s clearly meant to be the stabilizing influence in the house, being the only totally sane one there. Her boyfriend remarks at one point, “Ever notice how white folks always getting themselves in trouble?”
This is not to say the production is without flaws. Indeed, so many that it almost seems to succeed in spite of itself. Act I is very slow. The generally feeling of the audience was that it was entertaining, if not engaging. But Act II picks up considerably, and Act III maintains that energy and mania. One of the problems is that so many of the characters are so overplayed. Granted, the script makes that easy to do, you’re supposed to resist it. I will say, though, that with very few exceptions, each character has at least one moment of perfection.
And it’s not just the characters that are overdone. In what seem to be his attempts at making the play funny and significant, director Vincent M. Lancisi overburdens it. Comedy relies heavily on timing, but it was off during much of this production. For instance, just as Alice is trying to explain to her intended it would never work between them because their families are from such radically different social circles – indeed, the Sycamores almost seem a circle unto themselves into which others blunder from time to time – a family member executes a particularly zany antic. Alice turns back to Tony and says, “Would you want to introduce that to your family?” That line should have brought the house down, but it didn’t even get a chuckle.
I wanted to tell Mr. Lancisi to stop trying so hard. When you have a play as well-written as this one, all you have to do it get out of its way. You don’t have to add anything to it, you don’t have to improve it. Just present the play and let the script do the work.
And do not put a huge dining table downstage center. All the action goes on from the hips up behind it, or has to maneuver its way around to the front of it, or be played at the edges of the stage. There was a perfect nook upstage for a smaller, round table, which would have left the main playing are open. No, it wouldn’t have been big enough for none people to eat at, but so what? Nobody actually does eat at it, and this is theater. People will accept that.
Except for the table, Daniel Ettinger’s set design was excellent. You could absolutely see this wacky family living in it.
A couple of caveats; There is a strobe light effect at one point, and there is smoke on stage. Not cigarettes, but smoke just the same. There are also times when there is a lot of noise. (They make fireworks, remember?) If those things aren’t an issue for you, you will love this show. Everyman’s You Can’t Take It With You is thoroughly enjoyable. It’s a really fun evening at the theater. Buy tickets now because it’s likely to sell out quickly.
Running Time: Two hours and 30 minutes, with two intermissions.
You Can’t Take It With You plays through June 17, 2012 at Everyman Theatre, 1727 N. Charles Street, in Baltimore, MD. For tickets please call 410-752-2208 or purchase them online.