Contributor Marcus Scott revisits the American classic by Kaufman and Hart.
Brooks Atkinson, the legendary former theater critic of the New York Times, once wrote that George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart “made their best plays out of dynamite.” There’s some truth to that, given the latest roof-raising revival of the Pulitzer Prize-winning You Can’t Take It With You directed by Scott Ellis. The six-time Tony nominated director helms a cast that bursts with unwavering jubilation and affection that hasn’t been seen on the Great Way in some time.
This production (the second Broadway revival in the show’s history) stars an ensemble cast of legends and rising stars and is unusual in that it strives less for crowd-pleasing applause and more for its bold critiques on the American family unit and the U.S. government at large. Not unlike like last season’s All The Way, You Can’t Take It With You, a delightful comedy of manners, aims to make the audience point the big questions to those running the country and the company we keep among us.
By June 1936, with an impending second World War on the horizon and the economic bubble having burst around them, the whimsical Sycamore family could have lived like most middle-class American families at the time: Absolutely joyless and wearing the earth-shattering spells of the times on their faces. Instead, they relish in the mayhem of mortality and life’s laughs.
Things certainly aren’t quiet for too long in the home of Martin Vanderhof (played by theater icon James Earl Jones), a retiree who hasn’t paid his back taxes to the government since it was required in 1914. He wants to know where the funds go, to which Henderson (played by Karl Kenzler) and later, the G-Men (played by Nick Corley, Austin Durant and Joe Tapper), can’t really answer. Jones, 83, just as sharp and quick-witted as ever, hits the nail with the hammer with such lines like, “Last time we used battleships was in the Spanish-American War, and what did we get out of it? Cuba—and we gave that back. I wouldn’t mind paying if it were something sensible.”
Vanderhof, grandpa of The Sycamore clan, has certainly inspired his wild bunch of pleasant, though zany, offspring and in-laws. Within the every-man-for-himself household, ballet is practiced, xylophones played, snakes collected, printing presses operated and live kittens nursed. And that’s just Wednesday evening, folks.
When Penelope Sycamore (played by the hysterically jovial Kristine Nelson) isn’t popping sweets from her skull ashtray-turned-candy-dish, she’s stroking her kittens for inspiration as she speed-types her 11th play. Penelope’s eldest daughter Essie Carmichael (the outrageously entertaining Annaleigh Ashford), the awkwardly obtuse pixie with a ballet fetish, dances around the Sycamore home in hopes of making it on the great American Stage. Her husband Ed (played by Will Brill) is equally as daft but charming as he chimes away at the xylophone. When Paul Sycamore (played by Mark Linn-Baker), the tinkering patriarch of the family, is blowing up explosives in the downstairs den, he sets them off in the living room without batting an eye. All things considered, though quirky, the family and their cohorts are simply enchanting.
The madcap parade continues with the arrival of the insatiably inebriated actress Gay Wellington (played by Julie Halston), who faints at the sight of the snakes caged in a glass case. Or, Mr. and Mrs. Kirby (played by Byron Jennings and Johanna Day, respectively), the multimillion parents of the lovesick Tony (played by Fran Kranz) who has asked for Alice’s hand in marriage. Alice (played by Rose Byrne) is a bit more skeptical than one would hope and understands that her family is more unconventional than most would hope. And for a time—especially as the curtain closes on Act II, you believe she’s quite right.
Thank heavens they have friends in high places, like danseur Boris Kolenkhov (played by Reg Rogers). After all, it’s not everyday that Grand Duchess Olga Katrina (played by Elizabeth Ashley), a cousin to the Czar who left Russia after the Revolution and is biding her time as a waitress in Times Square, comes to dinner.
Yes, a lot of names were just dropped. That was on purpose, we assume. There’s also star power behind the scenes. Composer Jason Robert Brown (whose musical The Last Five Years gets released as a feature film starring Anna Kendrick and Jeremy Jordan next February) created original period-heavy music and orchestrations for this production of the Kaufman & Hart masterstroke.
Scott Ellis’ seamless direction of the three-act madhouse pandemonium of a play, filled to the brim with action and fireworks that follows a family with more riches than any money can buy during the depression, is the must-see revival of the season. This production is something that will etch itself into your theatrical memory. And with any luck, perhaps you will take it with you long after the final curtain has come down.
You Can’t Take It With You
220 West 48th Street
Marcus Scott, an MFA graduate of NYU Tisch, is a playwright, musical theater writer and journalist whose work has appeared in Elle, Out, Essence, Uptown, Trace, Giant, Hello Beautiful and EDGE Media Network.